MnDOT Worker Saves Driver from Freezing to Death

MnDOT worker Jake Tillotson saved a driver from freezing to death in the swamp behind him. He spotted a damaged section of guardrail at 2 a.m., and when he investigated, he discovered a truck that had rolled onto its side.
MnDOT worker Jake Tillotson saved a driver from freezing to death in the swamp behind him. He spotted a damaged section of guardrail at 2 a.m., and when he investigated, he discovered a truck that had rolled onto its side.

Jake Tillotson was out patrolling the rural highways for MnDOT in the middle of a frozen night when he spotted something a little off.

It was 2 a.m. last Tuesday. The AFSCME Local 604 member saw a twisted, missing section of guardrail on Highway 47 north of Ogilvie. He quickly turned around, figuring he’d put out barrels or cones to mark the spot and keep other drivers safe until workers could fix the rail.

“Then I saw a vehicle out in the swamp,” he says. “It looked like it had been there for a while. There was frost all over it. Normally you’ll see a bunch of tracks from people walking to it and from it several times. There weren’t any tracks. That’s when I figured I’d better go and check it out.”

The old Ford pickup had rolled several times, landing on the driver’s side. Tillotson peered into the frosted windows.

“There was somebody in the vehicle,” says Tillotson, who started at MnDOT in September.

Tillotson is part of MnDOT’s Dawn patrol, a team of workers who patrol our roads overnight from October through April to add a much-needed layer of safety in our coldest, most dangerous months. He has served on the Milaca Volunteer Fire Department, as a contract firefighter in Iraq and as an oil field firefighter all over the U.S.

The Dawn Patrol functions as our state’s on-the-ground, early warning system for bad weather. Each worker routinely covers 150 to 200 miles of state highways a night. If a bridge deck or section of road is getting icy, a Dawn Patrol worker will grab a plow. When the roads get bad, they alert supervisors to call in a crew. They keep in touch with each other from different parts of the state, too, so everyone knows how fast and furiously a storm is blowing in.

That’s critical. While TV meteorologists have fancy tools like Doppler radar, they’re not always right: “We’ll get snowfalls that weren’t in the forecast at all, or it’s saying it’s going to snow and it never does,” Tillotson says. Their reports help inform 511 road condition reports.

They work hand in hand with state troopers and deputies. They clear roads of debris, fallen trees and dead animals. When there’s an accident, law enforcement may call the Dawn Patrol to help direct traffic and bring in cones. During downtime, workers clean trucks, sweep floors and do whatever else needs doing at the MnDOT shop. “We all work together,” Tillotson says.

“It’s our job to make sure those roads are safe and passable,” says Rick Frauendienst, vice president of MnDOT Local 604. “It’s like EMTs – you never know what you’re getting into.”

A truck crashed through a guardrail and flipped several times. Jake Tillotson, who came across the accident hours later while patrolling the roads, discovered someone was still inside. (Photo courtesy of Jake Tillotson)
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The night of the accident, when Tillotson checked on the truck that had rolled over, he discovered an older man trapped inside, wrapped up in a sleeping bag and scrunched against the driver’s side door. The vehicle was ice cold to the touch.

“I kept asking him if he was hurt,” Tillotson says. “All I could get was mumbling. It was 10 or 15 below. I tried to get him out. I couldn’t get the door open. It was all bent up because it had rolled several times.”

Tillotson called for help. He thought about kicking out the windshield, but couldn’t without potentially hurting the driver.

“I sat there and talked to him until the Fire Department got there,” he says. First responders pried the door open, got the driver out of his truck and took him to the hospital. A paramedic later told Tillotson the man was OK.

Tillotson likely saved his life. The elderly man was trapped in his truck at 13 below zero for up to seven hours.

“If I hadn’t noticed there weren’t tracks, I might have not noticed he was there,” Tillotson says. “It looked like it was an old deal. I’m just glad that I noticed the accident and stopped and went and actually checked the vehicle.”

“Jake is talented, he’s energetic and he did the right thing,” Frauendienst says. “He deserves all the recognition we can give him.

“There’s an awful lot of dedication in these workers,” he adds. “They are committed and they do a darn good job.”