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Fire truck brakes go out at intersection of Hwy. 54 and Main in Vandalia

Posted on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 at 12:10 pm

Captain Billy Heaston of the Farber Volunteer Fire Department waits for a tow of the 1974 Chevrolet C60 fire truck after a brake failure.

By Barry Dalton

Thanks to some quick thinking and more than 40 years of fire truck driving experience, veteran volunteer firefighter Captain Billy Heaston of Farber was able to avoid a major crash while driving east at the intersection of Hwy. 54 and Main Street in Vandalia when his truck’s brakes suddenly went out on Friday morning, March 19. 

“I was going to stop at the stop sign. There were two other cars in front of me,” Heaston said. “I started slowing down, and all of a sudden the pedal went to the floor and there wasn’t any stopping. Luckily there wasn’t nothing coming, so I got over in the left lane and tried to turn left.” 

Heaston was unable to make the left turn cleanly. The corner was too tight, and his 1974 red Chevrolet was heavy with water. Turn too hard and he could have rolled it. He tried to make it into the parking lot of the QP Express on the northeast corner so that he could u-turn out of it on the other side, but his truck took out the Route F sign on the corner. He guided the truck left, away from the gas pumps and customers, and back out of the edge of the lot, snapping a tension cable while dodging the telephone pole, crossing Main Street and rolling over the sidewalk before coming to a stop in Paula Thompson’s yard.

Thompson, of 315 N. Main St., on the west side, was standing in the yard when heard the truck take down the street sign, u-turn out of the parking lot, and come hurtling toward her house. 

“We were standing out here in the yard, talking about [my home repair project], and we saw Billy come around, and he whipped that around,” Thompson said. “I don’t know how he kept from missing the telephone pole. I thought sure he was going to hit the pole but he just got the guy-wire.”

The truck was full of water, so that additional weight turned out to be a blessing as the truck drove over the wet ground and stopped.

“I really think if that ground wasn’t wet, he wouldn’t be able to stop there,” Thompson said.

A co-owner of the QP Express, 101 E. Hwy 54 (who asked not to be identified by name), confirmed that he saw the footage of the crash before handing it over to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

“I saw everything,” he said. “It could have been a bad crash. He hit the sign pole. I heard a noise, pretty loud. Lucky, because there were like three or four guys at the pumps.” 

Heaston, 66, who served as the Fire Chief for the Farber Fire Department for more than 30 years, had been driving the truck to Tony Holtcamp’s garage next to the prison for spring maintenance.

“Fortunately, no one was hurt,” said Harold Williams, who is also a veteran volunteer firefighter in Farber. “I was following him. I was wondering what the heck was going on because he was going to go straight. It was quick thinking. I don’t think many drivers could have done what he did. That truck doesn’t have power steering!”

Williams said that the crash was caused because the master cylinder went out, making the  truck’s brakes fail, about six blocks from their destination. Ever humble, Heaston claimed it was just luck that the crash wasn’t more serious. He confirmed that it was the first time he’s ever had his brakes go out like that. The truck suffered very minor body damage.

“That’s his old baby. He drove that for a while,” Williams said. “It’s our backup truck now. He’s one of the most experienced drivers that we could have had this happen to, so I’m happy. He did a great job. It could have been a heck of a lot worse.”

Chad Calicott, a contractor who was assisting Thompson when the truck “pulled up” in her yard.

“I don’t know how he turned that thing around like that. He’s a magician. I’ll tell you that,” Calicott said. “He did some amazing handling. I don’t know how he did it.”

Paula Thompson, of 315 N. Main St., and a PermaSOFT repairman working at her home discuss the remarkable driving skills of firefighter Billy Heaston.