It was Friday night, and Larry and Donna Hicks were about to catch the six o’clock news at their lakeside home in Palos Verdes Estates outside Troy, Alabama. Hicks was a 52-year-old retired sergeant major in the Marine Corps, now serving as a conservation officer for the state of Alabama. He’d gotten home from work half an hour earlier, and he and Donna had talked about going to the movies, but decided against it.
The television news was just beginning, when they looked out the window and saw a small plane flying over the shore of Lake Palos Verdes.
“I wonder if he knows about the power lines,” Larry said, just as the plane suddenly stopped, flipped over, and headed straight for the lake. Hicks was already running out the back door when the plane hit the water, yelling at his wife, “Call 911! I’ll see if I can help the pilot.”
Fortunately, Larry’s brother Wayne had left a 14-foot aluminum boat, with an electric trolling motor, on the lake in preparation for bass fishing that day, and then he hadn’t turned up. Donna made the 911 call and ran out in time to see Larry commanding the Johnboat, heading toward the Air-Cam, which was about 100 yards from shore.
Years earlier, when Hicks had been stationed at the Naval Air Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, he had spent two and a half months, part-time, in an intense Search and Rescue program. A senior got him into it because he thought Hicks would be good at it since he was muscular and liked gaining weight. The training was specifically aimed at saving pilots who had sunk into the water in fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft. Hicks learned how to take out pilots of planes that had crashed face down. However, he never stayed in the telecommunications unit and had the opportunity to use his specialized training.
The Air-Cam’s engine was hot when it hit Palos Verdes Lake and the plane was smoking in the water. High-octane jet fuel from a broken fuel tank floated on the surface in greasy patterns. The rear half of the plane and a broken wing were sticking out of the water. Hicks got off the ship and climbed onto the wing and tied a rope to the plane to prevent the ship from floating away. The strong smell of gas assaulted his nostrils. Only later did he think of the danger of the plane exploding.
The water was cloudy and Hicks had trouble navigating underwater. The plane had crashed in the middle of an underwater “stump field”, but luckily it had not collided with any trees. The first time he landed, Hicks ran out of air and was forced to return to the surface without locating the pilot. The second time, he felt the back of the man’s neck under his hand. After another trip to the surface, he took a deep breath and descended for the third time.
Larry’s military training – repeating what to do until it became second nature – took over: “Locate pilot, extract pilot …” Hicks searched for the pilot’s seat belt; Fortunately, it was one that he recognized from the sentiment of his army training. He released the belt and the pilot floated in his arms. Hicks swam to the surface, dragging the man with him. The pilot had bones stuck through his legs and his feet were turned in the opposite direction.
The man was bleeding from his nose and mouth and he was no longer breathing. He had drowned. Troy police had already reached the shore of the lake. Larry yelled at officers, “He’s not breathing,” and heard one police officer say to another, “He’s dead.”
Hicks dragged the man against the wing sticking out of the water and placed a modified Heimlich maneuver under his ribs and pulled up to get the water out of his lungs, then began modified CPR. The inert figure coughed up water and blood, then, on the fifth breath, began to breathe. “I’ve got him breathing again,” Hicks yelled to the rescue unit on shore.
Hicks grasped the wing of the plane with his left hand, lying on his back in the water, supporting the pilot on his chest with his right arm to keep his head above the water. He felt a stinging sensation from the jet fuel, which worsened until he felt great pain. He later discovered that the top layer of his skin had been burned.
The rescue unit pulled out an additional boat, put the pilot on the board, and floated him to shore. Larry tried to follow the four members of the rescue team as they exited the lake, but his legs gave out. He and the pilot were taken to Troy Hospital.
As Hicks was being treated for gasoline burns to his upper body, he heard helicopters arrive to transport the pilot to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.
Almost immediately word spread that a plane had crashed, piloted by the famous Jack Roush, who has owned a NASCAR and Winston Cup car since 1988. An airplane buff, friends of Roush had arranged for him to fly the Air-Cam, a specialized aircraft built specifically for photography, as a birthday present.
Initially, Roush was put on a respirator and a trauma team was working on him. He had inhaled water and gasoline and suffered closed head injuries, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, compound fractures in his left leg, and broken ankles. He didn’t remember anything from the time of the accident until he woke up in the hospital that weekend.
Surprisingly, six days after the accident, Roush was running his business over the phone from his hospital bed. By Sunday, he had arranged for Larry and Donna to be flown by private plane to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit him.
Six weeks later, Roush piloted a plane from his home in Michigan and limped on crutches at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team. Larry and Donna were by his side.
Larry Hicks has no doubt that a Higher Power was working on the incredible rescue of Jack Roush. If the Air-Cam had hit the high voltage power lines instead of the support cables as it did, the plane would have caught fire. Had he crashed to the ground or struck a tree in the underwater stump field where he landed, Roush would have been killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to the movies that night, as they had commented, or had just been in another part of the house, they would not have seen the plane go down and Jack Roush would have died. If Wayne Hicks hadn’t left the boat ready to go, there would have been no rescue.
But, most surprising of all, Hicks was one of a small percentage of the population with the specialized knowledge necessary to save a pilot in an upside-down airplane from a watery grave. And, another thing was necessary to save Jack’s life, and that is that Hicks is a man of action who did not hesitate to risk himself to save the life of a stranger.
Larry Hicks was recognized with many honors as a result of his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal of Heroism, the Carnegie Award for Heroism from the Carnegie Foundation, the Robert P. Connally Medal of Heroism from Kiwanis International and the Sons of the American Revolution Medal of Heroism Society. The rescue story appeared in People Magazine, and Larry and Jack were on the cover Illustrated NASCAR.
Larry shows great pride in having lived up to the United States Marine Corps Code of serving his country with honor, courage and commitment, with selfless service.