WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A destroyed truck and large sign on the side of a Columbus County highway have no doubt caught the attention of thousands of drivers, and the fire chief behind the display hopes the message will shock people into yielding to emergency vehicles on the road.
"The message is: Put down your phones, pay attention to what's going on, give us your undivided attention, so that way we can remain safe," said Steve Camlin, chief of Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire-Rescue.
The wrecked vehicle and black-and-white sign are located in Delco on a grassy area at the intersection of US-74/76 and NC-87, also called Andrew Jackson Highway East and Old Stage Road.
The sign in all-caps reads, "THE RESULTS OF NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO EMERGENCY LIGHTS & VEHICLES ON A TRAFFIC SCENE."
The mutilated truck is not a random vehicle. It’s a fire department truck that was destroyed in a fiery crash and now serves as a warning symbol.
The explosive accident on Dec. 10, 2018 involved a tractor-trailer crashing into the firefighter’s vehicle, and then plowing into a family’s car as they received assistance from first responders.
“There could have easily been seven people killed that night. Easily. Or more. So we just ask people to pay attention when they’re on the roads,” said Camlin. “The only thing we ask people to do is whenever you see us out there, stop what you’re doing, pay attention, slow down.”
Camlin’s message of safety is also spelled out in North Carolina’s Move Over Law, which requires drivers to move one lane away from any law enforcement, emergency vehicle, or utility vehicle on the side of the highway.
The night of the accident, Camlin said the driver of 18-wheeler was not paying attention to the road.
"He just wasn't going to stop," said Camlin. "There was nothing, we tried to flash a flashlight on him, hit some strobe lights with him, do something to catch his eye on the windshield, and it got to the point where we had to dive out of the way."
Camlin said the totaled vehicle has not been altered or made worse since the accident; the unrecognizable condition of the truck is entirely from the collision.
“We wanted the insurance companies and everybody to see how bad that vehicle is just from 80,000 pounds from what I think 70 miles per hour,” said Camlin about the 18-wheeler collision.
The location of the current display is also intentional. Camlin said US-74/76 and NC-87 is one of the most dangerous in the area and people often speed.
“That highway right there, according to DOT, has 660,000 vehicles go through there once a month. So it’s a good way to get the message across,” said Camlin.
Leonora Hall, a lifelong resident of Columbus County, said the startling display is an effective way to encourage safe driving.
"Every time I ride by there and I see it, it's like 'Oh my goodness, like wow.' That could have been anybody," said Hall. "That could have been me, that could have been someone else, that could have been them actually in the vehicle. Luckily nobody was actually in there."
Hall does have reservations that the display might alarm and distract drivers at an intersection known for vehicle wrecks.
"I'm just glad they did put it out front so that it can be viewed. I do agree, it probably needs to be in another location besides that intersection, but it's definitely a reminder," said Hall.
A wooden cross also sits at the intersection beside the display. Camlin said the cross is from a fatal accident about six years ago involving three vehicles where one person died.
An unrelated billboard for an injury attorney is right behind the fire department’s display, but the lawyer advertised said he supports the message in a very visible and highly trafficked intersection.
“It was a surprise that (the display) was placed there,” said attorney Phillip David in a phone interview. “Whatever to benefit us all to heighten the awareness to slow down at those type of situations, I’m in support of it, whether it’s in front of my billboard or not.”
While nobody was killed in the accident, Camlin said the near-death encounter could happen again if drivers do not heed the law.
“A lot of people pay attention and they move over to the far lane to give us space. And the ones that don’t are the ones that take away from the people that are being respectful,” said Camlin.
The wrecked truck and sign will remain by the highway until the salvage company removes it in the next one to two weeks, said Camlin. The totaled truck has not yet been replaced by the fire department.