Three-year-old Alexis Asprooth looked up at the man with the salt-and-pepper mustache Sunday, too young to understand that he saved her grandmother’s life almost 30 years before she was born.


 

Three-year-old Alexis Asprooth looked up at the man with the salt-and-pepper mustache Sunday, too young to understand that he saved her grandmother’s life almost 30 years before she was born. 

“Hug him, Lexie,” Jennifer Asprooth said. “Without him, Grandma wouldn’t be here.”

At the Register Star News Tower on Sunday, Asprooth was reunited with Mark Schlanger, 55, one of the Rockford firefighters who helped save her life when her car was speared by a train Dec. 4, 1979.

Schlanger was one of four rescuers who came forward after Asprooth’s story was featured in the Register Star on Tuesday.

Until now, she’s been tortured by the fact that she had never thanked them for saving her life.

There were rounds of hugs with three of those rescuers: Retired Fire Capt. Jim Dahlgren, 63, was then a 35-year-old rescuer on the extrication team; retired firefighter Lanny Wong, 55, who was then a 27-year-old rookie paramedic; and current District Chief Schlanger, who was a 27-year-old paramedic.

A fourth rescuer, Ron Potenziani, still a driver and engineer for the Rockford Fire Department, was on ambulance duty as a paramedic that day. He was unable to make the reunion Sunday.

Asprooth was an 18-year-old bartender in 1979, driving on 20th Street to help close one of the bars where she worked. As she crossed the railroad tracks between Broadway and Harrison Avenue, a train smashed into her car. She remembers the blinding lights as the locomotive approached, but blacked out until rescue crews arrived.

“I was shocked to see her even alive,” Dahlgren said. “When the train hit that car, it was like you kicked a beach ball. That car went flying.”

Her rescuers found her bent nearly in two on the passenger side of the car, her neck broken. Doctors later told her that if the paramedics had jostled her at all, she would have been paralyzed.

“You were specific to the pain in your neck, and that made us very careful,” Schlanger told her. “We were very careful.”

Special Thank You Note

Wong, one of the paramedics on the scene, kept a copy of a thank-you letter from one of the doctors in the emergency room at SwedishAmerican Hospital that night.

“I feel that they should be commended for their careful treatment of this woman who had an injury which could have been fatal if mishandled,” Dr. William W. Basham wrote in a note dated Dec. 5, 1979.

After trading some hugs, Asprooth’s rescuers wanted to hear about her recovery. She spent eight months recuperating in a halo-vest, with pins screwed into her head to hold her spine in place. Because her movement was limited by the device, her mother waited on her hand and foot. Sleep was awkward because her head couldn’t touch a pillow.

It was about a year before she felt like herself again.

“It had to be just terrible all wired up like that,” said Dahlgren, the retired fire captain.

Asprooth laughed with her rescuers as she described watching a flick in the front row of a movie theater while she was still in her halo. She felt everyone staring at the strange contraption around her head. She didn’t mind because she said she felt stir-crazy stuck at home during her recovery.

Since the accident, Asprooth has been relatively healthy, other than migraine headaches and chronic neck pain.

Paths Crossed?

After reminiscing, Asprooth paused, smiling at the three.

“You know, you all look very familiar,” she said.

As it turns out, it is likely Asprooth has crossed paths with her rescuers since the accident.

Wong’s brother used to work with Asprooth at Hootman Dental Laboratory downtown.
Later, the rescuers and Asprooth posed for photos on the 20th Street tracks. They all exchanged phone numbers and addresses before parting.

Although the fourth rescuer, Potenziani, couldn’t meet Asprooth on Sunday, he said in a telephone interview that he was touched by her gratitude. He remembers only a few such thanks during his 31 years with the Rockford Fire Department.

“We’re proud of the job we do, and then knowing you made a difference in someone’s life, that’s huge,” Potenziani said.


Staff writer Bridget Tharp can be reached at 815-987-1354 or btharp@rrstar.com.