After a woman’s tire blew out Monday afternoon on Interstate 35 near the Christopher S. Bond Bridge, she pulled onto the shoulder and called a tow truck.
With rush hour nearing, traffic was building and she needed help.
Tow truck driver Blake A. Gresham, 18, arrived quickly, parked in front of her along the fog line on the right shoulder of the northbound lanes and loaded her Jeep onto his flatbed truck. He walked back along the driver’s side of his truck — which put him slightly in the lane of traffic — and stood near his rear wheels to tighten the chains to secure the Jeep. It was one of his final steps before he planned to drive the woman to a tire shop.
The woman climbed into the passenger side of his cab and then heard a loud noise. She saw debris and a mirror flying, then learned a box truck had struck Gresham.
The box truck driver apparently didn’t see him in time, police said. Gresham died instantly.
“For me, yesterday, he was a hero and a rescuer, and that’s what he died doing,” said the woman whose car broke down. She declined to provide her name out of privacy concerns.
Gresham, of Smithville, worked with his father, who owned the towing company called Gresham and Son Transport. His family declined to comment Tuesday.
Blake’s death shook the towing community, some of whom wrote condolences on an industry online forum.
“This is an absolute tragedy,” one tow driver wrote. “I am beyond words to see the loss of this young man.”
Another driver noted that Gresham had attended an industry trade show in Baltimore last year.
“I’m sure you saw his truck there,” the driver wrote. “He was so proud of it that he drove it all the way from Kansas City out there and back I can’t say enough what an awesome young man he was!”
Kansas City police said the area of the wreck was a straightaway, so they weren’t sure why the box truck driver didn’t see Gresham, who was wearing a brightly colored shirt but no safety vest. The driver was too distraught to give police an extended interview.
Investigators said he couldn’t remember specifically what happened. Police said the driver was not impaired and that his truck appeared to be in good working order. He may have seen the tow truck on the shoulder, because he apparently slowed down and moved over as far as he could in his lane, but was unable to change lanes before the impact. Investigators plan to check his cellphone records.
Working on roads and interstates with traffic is dangerous, said Sgt. Jeff Cowdrey. He said fatalities involving tow truck drivers could be higher, considering the risks of the job.
Missouri has a law that mandates that drivers move over or at least slow down when emergency vehicles are working on roadways, but tow trucks aren’t included in the law.
Police said they would support the inclusion of tow trucks. Tow drivers also called for changes in the law in light of Monday’s fatality.
Meanwhile, tow drivers try their best to stay safe.
“Every situation is different,” said John Baker, of Baker’s Recovery and Tow Service, based in Basehor, Kan.
“You might be on the right side of the bridge, the left side or even in the middle,” Baker said. “Out here in Leavenworth County sometimes there is not even a shoulder on some of the roads. When a customer breaks down or has a flat tire, about 90 percent of the truck can actually be out in the lane of traffic.
“About the only thing we can do is wear highly visible clothing and have high-visible lighting on our trucks.”
Robert Penn, of Penn’s Tow’s Service of Kansas City, has learned the wisdom of both. But tow truck drivers also must maintain constant alertness, he said, which he learned while working for years on a Missouri Department of Transportation road construction crew.
“They taught us to have eyes in the back of our heads and also to be listening for any odd sounds, like tire squalls,” he said.
“One of my biggest things now is to get in and get out as quickly as possible.”
Tow truck drivers, Penn said, also know that many trucks offer all necessary controls and equipment on both the driver’s and passenger sides.
That offers the tow truck driver the option of working on the right side of the truck, often away from traffic.
“Chains, safety straps, wheel straps on both sides — we make sure that all of our trucks are equipped to keep the driver safe,” Penn said.
Staff writer Mark Morris contributed to this report.