COPLEY, Ohio - A veteran Copley police officer narrowly avoided serious injury Tuesday morning when the driver of an 18-wheeler tried to swerve, causing his trailer to careen into two cars, including the officer’s police cruiser.
Detective Mike Wheeland was just seconds away from exiting his vehicle when the crash happened. He might not have escaped relatively unscathed had he done so.
Wheeland, who became a police officer in 1998, was supposed to attend training on Tuesday morning. However, with winter weather bearing down on the region that morning, he was thrust into patrol duties.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m., he and one other officer responded to a serious crash in the northbound lanes near the I-77 / Route 21 split. The area, which features two winding lanes and a blind turn, is notorious for its dangerous conditions for law enforcement officers and road crews, Wheeland said.
“It’s a pretty dangerous location when the weather’s bad. We have non-stop crashes there,” Wheeland said. “We had been saying it’s just a matter of time, unfortunately, until that could be a spot where one of us could be seriously hurt.”
They nearly predicted the future.
Wheeland and another officer responded to the crash scene which was just at the end of the blind turn. The driver had slid off the roadway, down an embankment on the left side of the highway. Because of where the car was situated, officers had to close the left lane. As soon as he arrived, Wheeland knew how potentially dangerous their location was.
Wheeland tried backing up in an attempt to create more distance between his patrol car and the accident scene. With the amount of traffic and the slushy conditions of the roads, however, he figured that might do more harm than good, he said.
“I put the cruiser in park and was going to exit my vehicle,” Wheeland said. “ Before I did that, I checked over my right shoulder, out the rear window.”
What he saw next will forever be burned in his mind. Another vehicle traveling in the left lane had stopped behind his cruiser and was waiting to move into the right lane. At that moment, the driver of a semi came upon the stopped vehicles and tried to swerve into the right lane, police said. Upon doing so, the semi’s trailer began to jack-knife, sliding into the vehicle that was stopped behind Wheeland’s police cruiser.
“I think the thought that went through my head is, ‘this is probably going to hurt pretty good,’” Wheeland said. “Before I could really react to anything, his trailer hit the vehicle behind me. I was knocked forward off the roadway. At that point, that was kind of it.”
“There wasn’t a whole lot of time to really have much of a thought other than here, it’s coming.”
The impact of the crash snapped Wheeland forward into the main pillar and steering wheel of the vehicle. It temporarily knocked him out, he said. His next memory was his fellow officers rushing to the side of his car to ensure Wheeland was okay. Pain in his neck, shoulders and back soon followed.
“My wife is actually a 911 dispatcher. You definitely think about all those things. You think about your kids; I have four of them,” Wheeland said.
Paramedics later placed Wheeland on a backboard and rushed him to an Akron hospital with minor injuries. He was released later that evening.
Meanwhile, other officers were trying to track down the driver of the semi who didn’t stop at the scene. Using a witness’ description of the semi, officers from nearby Richfield caught up with the semi driver about 10 miles away from the accident.
“You hit a cop car,” one of the officers told the semi driver.
According to police, the driver of the semi was not aware that he had caused the accident but was otherwise cooperative. The driver, who was from Pennsylvania, was eventually cited for failing to maintain proper distance.
Wheeland suffered only minor injuries but had the day off on Wednesday to recover.
“You know this is part of the job,” Wheeland said. “Obviously, I’ve been fortunate. This is really the first serious accident I’ve been in in 20 years of police work.”
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 587 law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty since 2007 in traffic-crash related incidents, including 127 officers who were killed after being struck by a vehicle.