By Russ and Tiña De Maris
We’ve repeatedly harped on the importance of having, inspecting, and safely using trailer safety chains. If something were to uncouple your tow vehicle from your trailer, safety chains can prevent the trailer from going its own way with disastrous results. But a couple in Idaho inadvertently learned that safety chains can act in reverse. For them, safety chains saved the day, keeping them from almost certain death.
Anything but an ordinary trip
Last Monday, Nicki and Steve Cunningham were towing their 30’ travel trailer down Idaho’s Interstate 84. The full-timing couple was headed to Idaho Falls to get an awning put on their rig. What probably seemed to be an ordinary trip turned into the stuff of action movies when they reached Malad Gorge.
“It was very windy and what happened was, and everybody knows that gorge, when that wind starts kicking up out there it can be very dangerous,” Steve Cunningham told KTVB.com. “And we’d driven that quite a few times, never had a problem. This time just happened to, it’s just the wind hit it wrong and, you know, I couldn’t get it under control.” Translated: The combination swerved right and hit a shoulder barrier. Then, like some sort of physics lesson, the rig went left until the pickup hit the left guardrail and slid along, finally tipping over a bridge.
Dangling over the edge
Now the Cunningham’s Ford F-350 pickup is dangling over the edge of the Malad Gorge bridge. Their travel trailer obediently followed – to a point. The mechanical stress tore up the rear end of the pickup, detaching the trailer’s hitch. But those safety chains saved the day. Instead of keeping the trailer from running away, they kept the truck from plunging down into the gorge, an unwelcome plummet of some 80 feet.
One can only imagine the impact this would have on one’s psyche and certain bodily control mechanisms. Nicki took quick action. Here’s what she told KTVB: “I grabbed my phone and I took a picture, ’cause nobody is gonna believe that’s us hanging over this, looking at all our stuff dropping out of our trailer and our truck, and that’s our stuff and we could be down there any minute not knowing if we were going to fall through or what.”
She also used her phone to make a quick phone call, to 911. From the time the call rang into dispatch until the two RVers were back on safe ground must have seemed an eternity. By the clock, it was 68 minutes. But a lot happened along the way. While those safety chains saved the day, they could likely only hold out so long.
Truck driver brings back up
As it was, a commercial truck driver, piloting a large – and loaded – flatbed trailer, happened on the scene. The driver quickly sized up the situation, brought his rig close to the trailer, and jumped out. From there the he grabbed some pretty heavy-duty chains and added an extra layer of safety, hooking the chains to both the Cunningham pickup and his own big rig.
In time, the Magic Valley Paramedics Special Operations Rescue Team turned up. Yeah, the place really is called Magic Valley, and for the Cunninghams (and their two dogs who were along for the ride) it must have seemed like magic when the team rappelled down to the truck and carefully extricated the dangling driver and his wife. The dogs had to wait their turn but they too were pulled back to safety on the bridge deck.
Chains can only do so much
Of course, there’s more to the story of the time that safety chains saved the day. We mentioned that Steve and Nicki are full-time RVers. While the chains saved their lives, they couldn’t prevent the destruction of both the pickup and the travel trailer. The Cunninghams are presently homeless, and working on the emotional impact of the whole affair. Says the report from KTVB:
“We lost everything in our trailer, all our keepsakes, everything I had was in there because that was our home so we’ve lost everything,” Nicki said.
“It’s pretty emotional right now,” Steve said. “We’re trying just to get through this and figure out what our next step’s going to be. … We don’t have a home to live in anymore. We’re basically like a lot of people – we’re homeless at this point.”
Results left her speechless
A gofundme page has been set up to help them with expenses that they’ll be facing until they’re able to get back on the road. Set up with a goal of $5,000, in just two days folks had contributed more than $30,000. This left Nicki Cunningham flabbergasted.
Wrote their friend who organized the gofundme effort: “I am just so speechless right now at the generosity of everyone donating prayers, time, and or money! Nicki and Steve are sooooo grateful! We tried to get the belongings but it was too emotional for them yesterday and we will try again for today! I can’t tell you how much everyone coming together and really supporting them in the most difficult thing they’ve ever gone through even after him serving in the military and surviving three different types of cancer … the encouraging words and blessings you’re giving will be just the thing to launch them on their new journey! Gypsy and Gismo (the Cunningham dogs) wanted to say hi!”
Next time you hitch up your trailer, remember Steve and Nicki’s experience. Hook them up right, knowing that for this couple, safety chains saved the day.
Since I am planning to be on highway 84 in Idaho in May, what should I look out for to prevent my class A from having a similar occurrence?
Many years ago (about 1948) when we were towing a house trailer across the country, I recall a conversation among others at a trailer park in which some of them thought safety chains were dangerous. One person recounted a situation in which the trailer came off the hitch and started swinging from side to side in the chains forcing the car into the next lane. At least one person said that he cut a link in half and then soldered it back together. The chain would pass inspection but break if the trailer came off the hitch. How many of these rigs are out there on the highway?
1948? Wow, Gene. You’re even older than I thought! (Unless you’re referring to something you remember from your childhood.) No disrespect, just impressed. Take care, and stay healthy. 😀 —Diane at RVtravel.com
Awesome story! Nikki’s presence of mind to whip out her cell phone and take pictures of her stuff cascading down past her into the gorge as they’re dangling there is mind-boggling…most folks would be paralyzed with fear or screaming their heads off. Full timers must be a special breed. Kudos to that passing trucker, too…helps restore some faith in our fellow humans.
Great story and a happy outcome, but I must pick a nit: “While those safety chains saved the day, they could likely only hold out so long.” What? No, once those chains had withstood the exponentially higher dynamic loads of the crash itself, they’d likely have been perfectly happy to dangle the truck there–static but for wind loads–until they rusted through.
Just remember to cross the chains when you connect them, military style. And, don’t let them drag the ground. I use a small bungee cord to hold the sagging middle up. It will fail if stress is placed one it.
Much better safe than sorry.
Nikki had posted in a Facebook group that after they got their camper, they had the safety chains welded.
I’d like to know more about the hero trucker, without him and his quick thinking/action, those simple tow chains might not have held a lot longer. He’d be my new favorite person on the planet, I hope he gets a special reward & a lot of accolades for his part in the whole adventure.
I agree! He was their guardian angel.
I’m all for safety chains of course, but you could argue if the thing was reversed, and the trailer was dangling off the bridge and pulled you off that it wasn’t a good idea.
I guess in short, the dangling off the bridge isn’t the reason for safety chains.
Not to be snarky, but you could also argue (as many have) that seat belts are a dangerous idea because they confine you in the vehicle when it’s upside down and on fire, or that it traps you when the rig is submerged in deep water. Thus, only fools would wear seatbelts. Right?
As for the Malad Gorge accident, that was a case of extremely bad timing, bad luck. I’ve driven across that bridge too many times to count: the gorge in that upstream location is extremely narrow (and deep!), more like a crack in the lava rock. It funneled the wind into a severe blast. Bad luck; fantastic good luck (those chains!).
If your upside down and still breathing, those seat belts just saved your life. What proof do you have that says seat belts are dangerous. What study can you provide of your “snarky” remark? And yes, you are being snarky! It went from “safety chains” to seat belts are dangerous, wow, amazing how the mind works.
I think you kind of missed the point, Gman.
Actually there was a study done and you are better off not wearing a seat belt in 4% of accidents. I’m a seatbelt survivor because I didn’t like the 25:1 odds of surviving without them.
Hi, Gman. Gray wasn’t saying he’s against seat belts. He’s saying some people think that way – which is true. So I think you came down on him pretty hard for stating that fact. Just sayin’. Take care, and always buckle up – whether you (people in general, not you, Gman) believe in using seat belts or not. 🙂 —Diane at RVtravel.com
The safety chains purpose is to prevent your trailer should it become detached from your tow vehicle and becoming an unguided missile into oncoming traffic. When I borrow my son in laws open utility trailer I hook up the chains on that. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living with the fact that my negligence resulted in another family’s loss of life.