Man rescues 500 people on icy Texas roads amid historic freeze

Jill Ventimiglia didn’t have running water in her Austin home because of the punishing Arctic storm that battered Texas, so she and her dog headed to her parents’ house across town.

All of a sudden, her car was stuck in thick ice on a slippery road.

Her white Honda Fit wouldn’t budge, and as she looked up, she saw about 30 other cars were also stranded. There was no phone signal; she couldn’t call 911.

“It was so scary,” Ms Ventimiglia, 47, said. “People were out of their cars screaming and panicking.”

After 15 minutes of frantically calling for help, a stranger shouted to her, “The guy is coming to get you next!” It was Ryan Sivley in his pickup truck, which he lovingly calls “The Beast.”

Mr Sivley rescued 98 drivers on Monday and about 400 others during the brutal blast that has hammered Texas, he said. Frigid temperatures and relentless snowstorms have sparked water and food shortages, widespread power cuts and hazardous, ice-glazed roadways.

“I’m going to get you, don’t worry,” Mr Sivley reassured Ms Ventimiglia, from his towering white 2010 Chevrolet Silverado – a four-wheel-drive that is well-equipped to handle treacherous terrain.

Mr Sivley, 40, tethered her car to his truck using a sturdy strap, then towed Ms Ventimiglia – who remained in her vehicle with her dog, Stella, roughly three miles to her parents’ house.

Mr Sivley made his first rescue on 14 February as the storm was brewing. He went to a corner store to stock up on essential supplies, and on his way there, he saw a bunch of vehicles stuck on the side of the road.

“It was like a sea of cars,” he said. “Some people were stuck in snowbanks and ditches.”

Mr Sivley, who likes to go off-roading in The Beast and his other truck, a black Toyota FJ Cruiser, happened to have some heavy-duty gear with him – hooks, chains, and recovery tow straps, which can pull more than 40,000 pounds.

“I had all my gear, so I thought, ‘let me just help,’” he said, adding that the situation got more harrowing by the minute.

“As fast as I was clearing cars out, people were pulling in and getting stuck,” he continued.

He estimated there was “about three to six inches of ice on the roads” causing the cars to jam up.

“I went from helping one person, to three people, to five people,” Mr Sivley said. “At 434 cars, I stopped counting. So many people are still stranded.”

Mr Sivley secures each vehicle to his truck, then pulls it past dangerous terrain, until the driver can safely take the wheel. In some cases – including Ms Ventimiglia’s – Mr Sivley will tow the person all the way to their destination.

Soon, Mr Sivley’s rescue efforts extended beyond towing cars. When he saw how treacherous the roads were, he began driving health-care workers to and from work and single-handedly relocating people who didn’t have electricity or running water.

“He’s my angel,” said Ms Ventimiglia, who gave him some food and money when he dropped her off. “He has helped my whole family.”

Mr Sivley picked up Ms Ventimiglia’s sister – who was with her husband, two children and three dogs – after the storm knocked out the electricity and water at their house.“They all piled into his car and he drove them to my parents’,” Ms Ventimiglia said.

Mr Sivley isn’t seeking any compensation for his towing or pickup services, he said, but some people will give him cash or transfer him money on Venmo to help pay for gas.

In one day alone, “I went through three tanks of diesel,” he said. Most days this week, he estimated, he’s been out rescuing people from 4am until midnight.

Mr Sivley says he’s been helping others because he knows what it’s like to need a hand. Last March, he nearly died in a motorcycle accident. He shattered his pelvic bone and severely damaged the left side of his body, requiring extensive surgery. He also sustained a traumatic brain injury.

Before the accident, Mr Sivley managed RV parks and tended to maintenance issues but he has been unable to go back to work because of his injuries.

While it’s still challenging and painful for him to move around, “the driving part is easy,” he said. “I’ve been in a place of begging for help and feeling powerless, so being able to do something to help others makes me feel like I’m part of something again.”

Mr Sivley’s rescue missions caught the attention of local media, and in an interview with ABC affiliate KVUE, he gave out his cellphone number, offering to help anyone in the Austin area.

Initially, Mr Sivley found people in need of help by driving around hilly areas and stopping by hospitals, but now, Austin residents directly contact him from all over city.

Lately, “I get well over 300 texts,” per day, he said.

John Hamilton and his girlfriend were watching the news and spotted the segment on Mr Sivley. They were in dire need of a driver.

“I grabbed a pen and jotted down his number, because my girlfriend’s 82-year-old mother lives alone in North Austin and has dementia. She had no electricity, and we needed to get her out of there,” Mr Hamilton, 69, said.

He texted Mr Sivley, and right away, he answered.

“Within about half an hour of texting him, he was here,” said Mr Hamilton.

Mr Sivley picked up the couple, drove them to retrieve the 82-year-old woman, then picked up her medication, and finally dropped her at her other daughter’s house, which had power and water.

“He basically saved Sharon’s mother’s life. There was no other way to get her out of there,” Mr Hamilton said.

But the rescue mission didn’t stop there: Mr Sivley then drove the couple north to feed their cats, who were living on a farm with no power. Along the way, Mr Sivley picked up hospital staff and took them home, and rescued three other people who were stranded.

“He expected nothing from us,” Mr Hamilton said. “We paid him enough to fill up his tank, but what he did was priceless.”

Mr Sivley said the torrent of calls has been stressful since he publicised his number, but he added, “it makes me feel really good.”

That’s because the calls have not just come from those in need of help. A number of people have reached out, asking to volunteer.

“People started messaging me saying ‘I have a four-wheel-drive truck; how can I help?’” said Mr Sivley.

So, he organised a network of rescuers. If someone calls for help and Mr Sivley is busy assisting someone else, he’ll pass along the address to one of nearly a dozen truck-driving volunteers.

Andrew Bost is one of them. When he heard about Mr Sivley’s rescue efforts, he had already been looking for volunteer opportunities for people with four-wheel drives.

Mr Bost – who lost electricity and has been staying with a friend – had been cutting trees from roadways, giving people rides, and delivering food. Still, he wanted to do more.

Like Mr Sivley, Mr Bost, 43, is an avid off-roader, and given his heavy-duty truck and gear, “I’m uniquely qualified for this situation,” he said. “Ryan sent me out on a few missions today.”

The group of volunteers, spearheaded by Mr Sivley, plan to continue rescuing people for as long as there’s need.

“I’ll just keep going,” Mr Sivley said. “They need help, and I won’t say no.”

The Washington Post

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