Jose Francisco Rael Jr.s tow truck lumbered over to the side of the westbound 60 Freeway. It was rush hour, and a beat-up Chevrolet sedan was on the shoulder with a flat.
Rael paused before opening his door, peeked over his shoulder to ensure no vehicles would sideswipe him and, once out on the asphalt, turned around.
He walked backward to the front of his truck, giving him at least a tiny chance to jump from trouble.
As he crouched over asphalt, jacking up the Chevy to replace the tire, he was at his most vulnerable. Just a few feet away, cars and semi-trucks hustled by.
Rael was paying attention to all of them – even if the drivers were not paying attention to him.
“I can feel their wind,” he had said earlier when asked if he knew when trouble was too close.
Sometimes, tow truck drivers get what they call a “tap on the shoulder” – brushed by a side mirror. Many others suffer worse.
All this makes driving tow trucks, especially on freeways, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in a rare study focused on the trade – determined that in five years ending in 2016, 191 tow truck drivers were killed nationwide.
That worked out to 42.9 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers.
Only pilots, roofers and fishermen had higher death rates if that statistic is compared to figures of other jobs considered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017.
For firefighters, according to the BLS, the rate was 8.9 deaths per 100,000 workers. For police, it was 12.9 deaths.
“First responders all get hit – firefighters, EMTs, Caltrans, Highway Patrol,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Kathlene New, who is based in Orange County. “It just seems like tow trucks are getting hit more frequently.”
Lawmakers have tried to help. Every state in the nation has adopted its own “Slow Down, Move Over” law, California in 2007.
It requires drivers to slow down and move over a full lane if they can do so safely when they see an emergency vehicle with flashing lights on a freeway shoulder.
“Some drivers, if they see a firetruck on the freeway, they know they have to move over,” said Patrick Sampson, the manager of motor services for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which oversees the local Freeway Service Patrol.
“But if they see a tow truck, they dont. They dont associate the appearance of a tow truck with safety.”
Injuries and worse
CHP Officer New supervises tow truck drivers in Orange Countys Freeway Service Patrol, a cousin of what Rael works for in Los Angles County.
These specialized tow trucker drivers, funded by the state and the county that has them, pull over for every stopped motorist they find, giving stranded drivers a tank of gas or a tow off of the freeway for free, aiming to keep overall traffic moving along.
“We havent lost anybody, but I had a driver get hit so hard that he never came back to work,” New said of Orange Countys fleet.
That driver was struck a few years ago while in the middle of the 5 Freeway, just south of the 91, when trying to tow a broken-down car to safety. Another vehicle slammed into the tow truck, sending him careening into the trucks back window, head first.
He end up with just cuts and scrapes – but that was enough.
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New ticks off other near-disasters: A driver who got got hit on his elbow, then narrowly missed a second strike as the car spun around. Another struck as he was stretching to grab a bucket in the lanes.
“Ive had an operator who carefully tried to open his door, when he was sideswiped,” she said. “Ive had an operator who got his foot run over when he was assisting a driver.”
It can get much, much worse out there.
Mark Tornow, who owns and drives for Finish Line Towing & Transport in Long Beach, knows all of this too well.
He lost an employee, in 2012.
Faapuna Manu, a 27-year-old father of three, was changing a tire on a darkened Cherry Avenue onramp of the 405 Freeway when a drunk driver in a 2005 Toyota struck him.
A recent morning, from behind the wheel of one of his trucks as he beelined to rescue a woman stranded by a flat tire in a sushi shop parking lot, Tornow recalled the crash that killed “Mac.”
“Mac was on the side of the road changing a tire at 2:28 in the morning,” Tornow said.
An EMT driving home from a holiday party plowed into the tow truck, and then the Mercedes Benz, right where Mac was kneeling down in the roadway.
“(The driver) spun out, then he hit the wall,” Tornow said. “When he woke up and saw what he did, he took some glass and tried to kill himself. … Its dangerous out here.”
Like a bulls-eye
In February, in Sausalito north of San Francisco, an AAA tow truck driver helping a motorist stranded on the 101 Freeway was killed when a passing pickup truck lost control in the rain and slammed into the tow truck, which hit the AAA driver standing on the other side, killing him.
In June, another AAA driver was killed, this time in Castaic, as he was helping a driver on the 5 Freeway: A passing semi-truck hit the driver and fled, with the semis driver never found.
Erwin Mendoza Geremillo, a 47-year-old father from Castaic, was that AAA driver.
On June 29, he was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills. Tow truck drivers from around the region attended his funeral.
On the road leading to the cemeterys central white chapel, surrounded by rolling green hills, a dozen tow trucks lined up on either side. The jumpsuit-clad drivers hopped out, gathered, then headed into the chapel.
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