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Rescue worker's heroics rewarded

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Monroeville Fire Chief John Snyder was one of the first to reach an overturned pickup on the berm of the Parkway East shortly before midnight Oct. 25.

Matthew McKnight, who was seriously injured in October when he stopped to help two motorists on the Parkway East, is congratulated yesterday upon receiving an award for his heroism at an EMS gathering at Seven Springs Resort. Shaking his hand is paramedic/firefighter Edward Frazier. Behind him is Eric Poach, fire captain. Frazier and Poach are from Fire Company No. 4, Monroeville. Poach is also a Mercy Outreach specialist. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

He was soon joined by a paramedic who had stopped on his way home from a shift at Mercy Hospital. They crouched by the cab to see if they could help the two men trapped inside.

Then, Snyder saw a car veering toward them, fast. He reached instinctively behind him, grabbing for the paramedic's shirt to pull him out of the way. There was nothing there.

The paramedic, Matthew McKnight, had been hit head-on by an eastbound car that was veering toward him from the passing lane. He flew 118 feet through the air and landed on the pavement.

McKnight's mother, Adele McKnight, had been driving on the parkway with her 23-year-old son that night, heading home to South Connellsville. "It was kind of a bad night, kind of cold, starting to snow and ice up a bit," McKnight said.

"When we got up to the accident scene, he says, 'Mom, you have to pull over because I've got to get out and help.' "

She pulled up behind the overturned pickup, and as Matt McKnight got out and headed for the cab, she called her husband to tell him they'd be late.

Then she saw it.

"This dark car came flying by, this kid, and I'm sitting there yelling at him. He was booking. I'm thinking, 'You idiot.' I was thinking they don't have any flares out. There were no ambulances out there yet."

Then she saw a figure lying on the roadway ahead, and pulled a blanket from her car to cover the person in case he was in shock. The man was badly injured, a bone sticking through his skin, his jacket pulled up strangely near his head because both shoulders were dislocated.

"Three people were over his head. His jacket was over his head, he was kind of trapped in his jacket, and I kept thinking, 'Lord, where did his shoes go?' He didn't have any shoes on. One lady at his left side was a nurse. You couldn't see his face because they were holding his face. You could see he had a fracture because the bone was sticking out. He was flopping around. I kept looking at his pants. Then I said, 'Oh, my gosh, I just washed those. It's Matt.' "

Mercy paramedic Eric Poach got to the scene, which was near the Monroeville exit, and heard Adele McKnight saying she wanted her son to go to Mercy Hospital. As he bent down over the victim, he first focused on the person's badly injured lower body.

"Then I looked up and said, 'Why am I looking at a Mercy shirt?' I realized it was Matt. I said, 'Matt, it's me, it's Eric."

Poach paused.

"Sixteen and a half minutes, from the time I bend down until we're at Mercy Hospital; 16 1/2 minutes."

Adele McKnight was right behind them.

"I'm not proud of it but I was doing 90."

As he lay with his body broken in dozens of places, Matthew McKnight, a Fairchance paramedic and Connellsville firefighter as well as a dispatcher for Mercy Hospital, tried to take charge of his own fate.

"He kept saying, 'I'm a paramedic.' He was trying to run his own code. That's Matthew," Adele McKnight said.

"He started assessing himself, saying, 'Check my lower extremities, I know something's wrong with my legs. ... I'm breathing OK now. ... My pelvis really hurts,' " said Poach, who said McKnight was conscious throughout the ordeal. "I said, 'Matt, let me be the paramedic.' "

Poach, who works for Mercy as an outreach specialist, had just seen McKnight at work a few hours before.

"I called it in on radio like it was a regular trauma patient, then I picked up the phone and called the dispatcher and said, 'Listen, guys, I don't want to shock anybody, but this is Matt. We've got to take care of one of our own.' "

After McKnight was hit, Snyder used the vehicles that had pulled over to help so they would block traffic until the parkway could be shut down.

The two men in the pickup, which had flipped after hitting an empty car on the side of the road, were taken to Mercy Hospital. Bradley Hessom, 35, of Leechburg, was admitted, and Timothy Rua, 43, of West Leechburg was treated.

Just minutes after McKnight was struck, police stopped a motorist who was driving erratically near the scene, Poach said. They arrested Christopher J. Martin, 20, of Murrysville.

Martin also ended up at Mercy Hospital, so his blood could be tested for the presence of alcohol.

Poach saw him, and knew who he must be. "He was the only guy in chains."

Martin was charged with underage drinking, driving under the influence, reckless driving, aggravated assault by vehicle and leaving the scene of an accident. He is scheduled for trial April 30.

McKnight's boss at Mercy, Rob Rathi, was notified at home and he drove in from South Connellsville.

"I've known Matt since he was about 12 years old," said Rathi, administrator of the Mercy Transfer and Communications Center, where McKnight works as a dispatcher.

The McKnights live across the street from a fire station, and Matt was fascinated by firefighters and paramedics for as long as his parents can remember.

"Matt was one of my [Boy Scout] Explorers," Rathi said. "And he kind of followed me around through fire departments and ambulance services."

When Rathi got to Mercy that night, he was met by some trauma team members who told him how serious McKnight's injuries were.

"When I went back and saw him, saw how severe and critical his injuries were ... it's fairly devastating to see one of your own lying there on the gurney."

"He was hit brutally," Snyder recalled. "It was the most violent thing I've seen in my 18 years as a paramedic and police officer. ... There was nothing I could do. All I saw was Matt in the air. It seemed like forever."

McKnight had what's called an "open-book" fracture of the pelvis -- multiple breaks that crack open the curved pelvis like a book spread back hard enough to break its spine.

The top of his left upper arm was broken off. He had multiple fractures of the coccyx and sacrum, the triangular tailbone.

A compound fracture of his left thigh bone had ripped a gash in his leg. Both his shoulders were dislocated. A bad chest injury threatened to collapse his lung.

Adele McKnight, who works as a health unit clerk at UPMC Shadyside, said that on the road that night, "When I finally could see his face, there was blood in his mouth, blood in his nose."

She said she works on an orthopedics floor, in the intensive care unit, so, "I knew it wasn't too good. I didn't realize how close I was to losing him."

Snyder did. "Frankly, the way he was hit -- I do some accident reconstruction work -- I thought he was dead."

When McKnight arrived at Mercy, there not only was the question of whether he'd make it at all, but if he did, doubt about whether he'd ever walk because of the extent of the injuries, Rathi said.

In the hospital, McKnight said to him, "I'm pretty busted up. How bad am I?"

"I said something like, 'Yes, you are pretty busted up, but we'll get you through it.' "

They did. "Everything went like clockwork," Poach said. "It was very smooth, very quick."

Five months after that awful evening -- just last night -- Matt McKnight was able to walk with a cane to accept an award for valor at an emergency medical services conference at Seven Springs.

Rathi recommended him for the award, and his colleagues and family kept it a secret for several weeks.

They persuaded him to sit in on a case review of his accident.

"I thought maybe I'd have to show some scars. Then all these people I recognized started piling in the classroom. I told my buddy next to me, 'Something is going on and I don't like it.' I was speechless. ... People in our business never ask for recognition, nor do we expect it. When you get it, it really means something."

McKnight's progress hasn't come easily. After the long operation the night of the accident, he had six other surgeries.

He was in the hospital for weeks, then at a nursing home. His father, Joe McKnight, said that after grueling rehab sessions, Matt would return to his room and do more on his own.

"He doesn't stop to smell the roses," Adele McKnight said. "He's go, go, go. He's not where he wants to be. He's probably three or four months ahead of schedule [in rehab], but he's frustrated."

It's been painful, said Joe McKnight, who works at Schneider's Dairy in Whitehall.

"He's very determined. He always has been, in anything he does. They told us originally he wouldn't walk for eight months, and he's walking with the aid of a cane now," just five months after the accident.

"It's a feeling I can't describe," McKnight said, "when you go from lying on your back for three months to standing and learning how to walk again."

Adele McKnight said her son sometimes had short-term memory loss, and that he had little memory of the night of the accident. "He doesn't even remember stopping."

McKnight expects to return to work at Mercy this summer. Some day, he said, he will fight fires and go on ambulance calls as a paramedic again.

"It's worth it to me. I've seen people killed when they were hit by a car at 10 miles per hour. To be hit at 70 miles per hour and knocked in the air 118 feet, I have a purpose here."

Staff writer Bill Heltzel contributed to this report.

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