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Perham graduate's life-saving heroics recognized by S.D. law enforcement associations

Chris Schafer, right, a 1994 graduate of Perham High School, was presented the Citizen's Award of Merit for the part he played in saving the life of a 16-year-old boy last August near Blunt, S.D. Presenting the award was Watertown Police Chief Lee McPeak. Submitted photo

Chris Schafer's timing was perfect last August when he pulled an injured 16-year-old boy out of a semi-truck which had collided with a train.

A moment or two later and the trapped teenager would have been burned alive.

In April, the 1994 graduate of Perham High School was recognized for his courage and quick action by the South Dakota Police Chiefs Association and the South Dakota Sheriff's Association at their annual conference in Deadwood, S.D.

The Citizen's Award of Merit came on a plaque in the shape of South Dakota. It is presented to a citizen, company or group for an exceptional act, or for a continued pattern of actions that furthers the missions and goals of the two associations.

Schafer and a friend were traveling near Blunt, S.D. on the afternoon of Aug. 17 when he observed an accident involving the semi, hauling 90,000 pounds of wheat in two full-sized grain trailers, and a train on the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern (RCP&E) line. The semi had attempted to stop, but with the heavy load it could not do so and slammed into one of the train's two locomotives.

Schafer, a firefighter with 25 years of experience and an EMT with 12 years under his belt, was aided by two railroad engineers who used fire extinguishers to suppress the spreading flames.

He was later helped by a member of the Blunt Fire Department.

Schafer saw smoke and flames in the cab of the semi and found the teenage driver almost completely buried by wheat which had flowed into the damaged cab.

"He was trapped," Schafer recalled. "He was about as trapped as it gets."

Like all firefighters, Schafer was trained to handle a variety of emergency situations, but a boy trapped inside a burning semi was a new one for him.

Schafer said the door of the cab miraculously opened and the grain poured out, allowing the rescuers to pull the badly injured teenager to safety. The Pierre, S.D. teen was taken by ambulance to Pierre and later was airlifted to Sioux City, S.D. It is Schafer's understanding that he has since recovered from his injuries.

The rescue might have never occurred had the semi struck a tanker car carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel.

"We literally had a two-minute window of time to do it, and that is being conservative," Schafer said. "We were at the right place at the right time."

Schafer recalled speaking with members of the Blunt Fire Department about the crisis after it was over. As a fire department training safety officer, he knew what he had done was not something he would have expected another fireman to do.

"Literally we should not have been doing it, and I'll admit it, but sometimes you just have to go outside of your parameters what you should and shouldn't be doing," Schafer said. "When you have a live kid about to burn under a truck I am not going to stand back 500 feet and watch it happen."

Schafer, 43, is the Director of Equalization for Hamlin County and works out of Hayti, S.D., a town located 156 miles southwest of Perham.