Tours Travel

NASCAR’s Jack Roush Rescue

It was Friday night, and Larry and Donna Hicks were about to watch the six o’clock news at their lakeside home in Palos Verdes Estates, outside of Troy, Alabama. Hicks was a 52-year-old retired Marine sergeant major, now working as a conservation officer for the state of Alabama. He had come home from work half an hour earlier, and he and Donna had talked about going to the movies, but decided against it.

The news was just beginning when they looked out the window and saw a small plane flying along the shore of Lake Palos Verdes.

“I wonder if he knows about power lines,” Larry said, just as the plane came to a sudden stop, flipped over, and headed straight for the lake. Hicks was already running out the back door when the plane crashed into the water, yelling at his wife, “Call 911! I’m going to see if I can help the pilot.”

Fortunately, Larry’s brother Wayne had left a 14-foot aluminum boat, with an electric trolling motor, on the lake in preparation for bass fishing that day, and then it didn’t show up. Donna made the 911 call and ran outside in time to see Larry commandeering the passenger boat, heading toward the Air-Cam, which was about 100 yards offshore.

Years earlier, when Hicks was stationed at the Marine Air Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, he spent two and a half months, part-time, in an intense Search and Rescue program. A major got him into it because he thought Hicks would be good at it since he was muscular and liked building weights. The training was specifically aimed at saving pilots who had gone down in the water in fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft. Hicks learned how to remove pilots from planes that had crashed upside down. However, he remained in the telecommunications unit and never had the opportunity to use his specialized training.

The Air-Cam’s engine was hot when it hit Lake Palos Verdes and the plane was smoking in the water. High-octane aviation fuel from a ruptured fuel tank floated to the surface in greasy patterns. The rear half of the plane and a broken wing protruded from the water. Hicks got out of the boat onto the wing and tied a line to the plane to prevent the boat from floating away. The strong smell of gasoline assaulted his nostrils. He only later thought about the danger of the plane exploding.

The water was cloudy and Hicks had trouble orienting himself underwater. The plane had crashed in the middle of an underwater “stump field”, but luckily had not hit any trees. The first time he went down, Hicks ran out of air and was forced to return to the surface without locating the pilot. The second time, he felt the back of the man’s neck under his hand. After another trip to the surface, he took a deep breath and descended for the third time.

Larry’s military training, the repeated exercise of what to do until it became second nature, took over: “Locate the pilot, extract the pilot…” Hicks reached for the pilot’s seat belt; luckily, he was one she recognized by touch from his army training. He released the belt and the pilot floated into his arms. Hicks swam to the surface, dragging the man with him. The pilot had bones sticking out of his legs and his feet were turned in the wrong direction.

The man was bleeding from his nose and mouth and was no longer breathing. he had drunk. The Troy police had already reached the shore of the lake. Larry yelled at the officers, “He’s not breathing,” and heard one police officer tell another, “He’s dead.”

Hicks dragged the man against the wing sticking out of the water and gave him a modified Heimlich maneuver under the ribs and pulled up to get the water out of his lungs, then began modified CPR. The limp figure coughed up water and blood, then, on its fifth breath, began to breathe. “I’ve got him breathing again,” Hicks yelled to the rescue unit on shore.

Hicks grabbed the plane’s wing with his left hand, lay on his back in the water, holding the pilot across his chest with his right arm to keep his head above the water. He felt a stinging sensation from the aviation fuel, which worsened until he felt great pain. He later discovered that the top layer of his skin had been burned.

The rescue unit pulled out an extra boat, put the pilot on the backboard, and brought him to shore. Larry tried to follow the four rescue team members out of the lake, but his legs gave out. He and the pilot were transported to Troy hospital.

As Hicks was being treated for gasoline burns to his upper body, he heard helicopters arriving to transport the pilot to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.

Word spread almost immediately that a small plane, flown by celebrity Jack Roush, who has owned a NASCAR and Winston Cup car since 1988, had crashed. As an airplane aficionado, Roush’s friends had arranged for for him to fly the Air-Cam, a specialized aircraft built specifically for photography, as a birthday present.

Roush was initially put on a ventilator, with a trauma team working on him. He had inhaled water and gasoline and suffered closed head injuries, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, compound fractures in his left leg and broken ankles. He didn’t remember anything from the time of the accident until he woke up in the hospital that weekend.

Remarkably, six days after the accident, Roush was running his business by phone from his hospital bed. By Sunday, he had arranged for Larry and Donna to fly on a private plane to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit him.

Six weeks later, Roush flew a plane from his Michigan home and hobbled on crutches at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team. Larry and Donna were next to him.

Larry Hicks has no doubt that a Higher Power was at work on Jack Roush’s incredible rescue. If the Air-Cam had hit the high-voltage power lines instead of the support cables as it did, the plane would have caught fire. Had it crashed to the ground or hit a tree in the underwater stump field where he landed, Roush would have been killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to the movies that night, as they’d said, or just been in another part of the house, they wouldn’t have seen the plane go down and Jack Roush would have been killed. If Wayne Hicks hadn’t left the johnboat ready to go, there would have been no rescue.

But, most surprising of all, Hicks was one of a small percentage of the population with the specialized knowledge necessary to save a pilot in an upside-down plane from a watery grave. And, another thing was necessary to save Jack’s life, and that is that Hicks is a man of action who did not hesitate to risk himself to save the life of a stranger.


Larry Hicks was recognized with many honors as a result of his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal of Heroism, the Carnegie Foundation Carnegie Award for Heroism, the Kiwanis International Robert P. Connally Medal of Heroism, and the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Medal for Heroism. The story of the rescue appeared in people magazineand Larry and Jack were on the cover NASCAR Illustrated.

Larry shows great pride in having complied with the United States Marine Corps Code to serve your country with honor, courage and commitment, with selfless service.

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