Chief Helms Returns to Duty After Scary Crash

It’s a motorcycle cruise this couple has taken for several years during the third weekend in each July simply so they can stay on the outside of the region’s single largest country music festival, but one that also has allowed them to see many sights offered to onlookers during the annual Jamboree in the Hills near Morristown, Ohio.

But that tradition was broken this year for Larry and Peggy Helms, and that’s because Wheeling’s fire chief and his wife suffered several fractured bones in a horrific accident on July 18 in an intersection a mile away from the music. Michael McElwain, a 24-year-old resident of Quaker City, was traveling east on U.S. 40 in a white, 1995 Honda Del Sol when he struck the couple on the 53-year-old firefighter’s Harley Davidson while attempting to turn north onto Ohio Route 331.

“We were almost there at the Jamboree site of the show when the accident took place in the intersection that most of the people who go to those shows travel through,” Helms said. “Because of the show and all of the people in the area, we both had our blood-alcohol levels checked, and the trooper told us that we must have been the only two sober people that day in the entire county.

“What’s weird is that we were supposed to meet with some family members that evening for a barbecue, but we decided to take a ride that we take every year out to that area before we were supposed to go. We left our house to take our annual jaunt through the Jamboree area, but we never got there,” he said. “We thought we would be gone for an hour-and-a-half, and six weeks later we finally got to go home.”

Chief Helms has been very involved with honoring firefighters who lost their lives protecting the public.
Chief Helms (on left) has been very involved with honoring firefighters who lost their lives protecting the public.

Helms did see McElwain slowing his sedan when approaching the intersection, but the Ohio motorist failed to stop his vehicle and instead struck the couple.

“I had turned my attention to the other traffic on the right side of that area, and then everything started going in slow motion. That’s when I heard a crunch, and suddenly my left leg was getting pushed into the bike. That’s when I was ejected, and that’s when everything started going really, really fast,” Helms recalled.

“I was thrown over the handlebars, and my wife was tossed over the vehicle that hit us,” he continued. “I landed about 15 feet away from the car and the bike, and I hit the pavement, and my wife landed on the pavement, too. She actually ended up in the turn lane on the other side of the vehicle.

“We suffered fractured pelvises, and my wife had her legs busted up pretty bad. Both of her legs were fractured, and she also suffered some fractured ribs,” he continued. “She suffered injuries to her spine and her neck, too, and even though she had her helmet on, she still suffered a concussion. I did not, but my hip and my pelvis is where my injuries took place, but we were both very lucky that we didn’t suffer any internal injuries.”

With his medical experience as a 30-year veteran of the Wheeling Fire Department, Helms was aware he was badly injured but was fairly confident he would survive the crash, but there were a few minutes before first-responders arrived when he was not positive his 48-year-old wife had survived the collision.

“I had to roll over to see her because when I tried to stand up, I couldn’t stand up,” Helms recalled. “I did yell for her, and she didn’t react. She didn’t say anything back to me, so I really didn’t know. I couldn’t get to her either because she was probably 35 to 40 feet away from me.

“And then some of the bystanders came around, and that’s when I realized that she was knocked unconscious for a short bit, but the people who were around told me that she was awake. That’s how we communicated with each other at that point,” he said. “It was a pretty scary situation. I’ve never really felt that way before. There was that moment when she didn’t answer me when I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”

Both he and his wife were transported to Wheeling Hospital, where doctors determined their injuries were not life-threatening, but the husband and wife were both in need immediate, extensive orthopedic-related surgeries. Initially, hospital staff members attempted to arrange life flights to Pittsburgh for each of them, but weather conditions that day would not permit such travel.

Chief Helms joined a number of other Wheeling firefighters to help the local Special Olympics organization for charity softball game.
Chief Helms joined a number of other Wheeling firefighters to help the local Special Olympics organization for charity softball game.

So, instead, Larry and Peggy were loaded into separate ambulances and transported that way.

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“The doctors had to rebuild my pelvis and put it back together,” Helms said. “Only about six weeks ago I was able to put my full weight on my legs again, and that’s when I finally started walking again. I still walk with a little bit of a limp, and that’s why I am still using a cane. It keeps me steady.

“We were blessed that we weren’t more critically injured,” he said. “With my medical background I pretty much knew that when I hit the ground my pelvis was shattered. I was pretty sure I felt my femur basically push through it, but my immediate concern was directed toward my wife.”

The fire chief communicated with EMTS at the scene of the accident, with doctors and nurses at the hospitals, and with his daughters after they arrived, but he was not able to speak with his wife of 30 years for more than a day after their ride was ended so abruptly.

“I only got to see her briefly after we arrived to Pittsburgh, and after that the kids were keeping me updated on her, but it was driving me nuts because I didn’t get to talk with her for 24 hours after the accident,” Helms said. “That was a very challenging time for me; it really was.

“My surgery was about an hour-and-a-half, but my wife was in surgery longer because of the work they needed to do to her leg injuries,” he continued. “It’s taken a while for us to heal, and she’s doing pretty well now. We’re both dealing with pain and discomfort, but she walked with a walker for a while. But now she’s able to walk on her own and that’s been good for her because she was in a wheelchair for a few months.”

McElwain was to blame for the wreck and was cited for failure to follow designated traffic patterns, and the young man was an insured driver at the time of the crash. That was the good news. The bad news involved their respective recoveries, and that’s because each movement, sometimes every breath, hurt somewhere within their shattered bodies.

At first, walking again, even with assistance, seemed daunting to both Larry and his wife because of the fractures and the fear of feeling that pain again, but they spent their time during rehabilitation together for a little more than five weeks.

“And by together, I mean in the same room at continuous care,” Helms said with a smile. “We lived in that one room with just one TV but, hey, we’re still married, so that has to say something.

A statue was unveiled earlier this year that honors fallen firefighters.
A statue was unveiled earlier this year that honors fallen firefighters.

“And pretty much we watched on the TV what I wanted to watch, but she would get bored with the History Channel shows that I like to watch so, on occasion, she would change the channel on me. I’m sure I’ve watched more television in the last three months than at any other time in my life, but as soon as I could start coming back to work, that’s changed a good bit.”

Assistant Chief Ed Giesel Jr. was quickly named by Wheeling City Manager Bob Herron as the interim chief, and once Helms was stable enough to handle fire department business again, he used the telephone and email when not visited in person.

“I’ve been involved with the department since soon after the accident happened, and of course at first it was all phone calls and emails, but there was that daily communication going on,” the fire chief reported. “So we were able to keep things fluent as far as the day-to-day operation of the department, and Ed and everyone else with the department just stepped it up and offered a lot of support to me and my family. It’s in those times when you realize the people you have in your life.”

It was about a month ago when Helms returned to his office near Centre Market, and he returned to full-time during the first week of October. The chief even responded to a fire call near his house a little more than a week ago, and that’s because this firefighter has taken great pride in his position since the day he was named to follow former chief Steve Johnston in 2007.

And one reason for that is the fact the six weeks he was away from his Warwood dwelling was the longest period of time during which he was not home, and that is why he and his wife both were honored by the well wishes and support the family received ever since that annual “look-but-don’t-touch” excursion was crushed by the crash.

“It was really nice for us to know that people were thinking about us, and we had a huge outpouring from not only family but also friends, the firefighters, and from so many people here in the city of Wheeling,” Helms reported. “Everyone really stepped up to help us during for the last few months, and it has really been a challenge for us.

“For a lot of years I’ve responded to accidents, and some of them have been really bad ones,” he said. “But I guess you just don’t realize everything that goes into the recovery and getting better until you’re the one being loaded into the ambulance.”

(Photos provided by Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms)