Betsy DeVall has always believed in guardian angels. Early Tuesday morning, she got to meet hers, and he wasn’t an ethereal being with wings, but a flesh-and-blood police officer — Greer, South Carolina, Police Sgt. Marcus O’Shields.
“She called me her guardian angel,” O’Shields told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira some 30 hours after he saved DeVall from being killed by a train.
Coming home from a friend’s house about a half hour after midnight, DeVall, of Williamston, S. C., got lost in the nearby town of Greer. Confused, and perhaps distracted while trying to get directions from her friend on her cell phone, DeVall pulled onto a set of railroad tracks, unaware that an Amtrak passenger train on its way from New Orleans to New York was barreling down on her at 72 mph.
Right place at the right time
In an ultimate case of being in the right place at the right time, O’Shields, who was working the overnight shift, had pulled off the road by the railroad tracks as he usually did at that time to take his break.
As he sat in his patrol car, he saw a car coming toward him stop at the tracks. But the car didn’t continue across the grade crossing.
“She made a left as if she’s turning left at an intersection, and drives onto the tracks,” he told Vieira. “That’s where I saw her vehicle become stuck, and I approached her vehicle right after that.”
According to local press reports, Shields found DeVall talking on her cell phone, unsuccessfully trying to get her car, which had become stuck, off the tracks.
Shields was well aware that the Amtrak train came through around that time of night.
“The train’s not on a perfect schedule — it’s not the exact time every night,” O’Shields said. “But I knew it would be coming through sooner or later. I didn’t know it was that close until I made the transmission to my dispatcher to notify the railroad that we had a vehicle on the tracks so they could hold up the train.”
Train was already on the way
It was too late for that. Another Greer police officer who was further down the road along the tracks radioed O’Shields to say the train was already on the way, and, he said, “It was fairly close. That’s when I began to coax Miss DeVall out of her vehicle.”
The woman apparently didn’t fully grasp the danger she was in.
“I told her, ‘You got to get out of the vehicle,’ ” he said. “ ‘We got to go now. The train’s coming. You can’t move your vehicle.’ At that time, she began to get out of her vehicle.
“She’s a little slow at first, and I had to urge her — let her know the urgency of the situation — that we need to get off of these tracks and out of the vehicle.”
Footage recorded by the video recorder in his cruiser shows him leading a stumbling DeVall along the tracks past a lowered crossing gate.
Seventeen seconds later, the train, its whistle blasting, smashed into the rear of the abandoned vehicle, pushing it down the tracks as it burst into flames. There was no way, police said, she could have survived the impact.
The engineer of the locomotive had seen O’Shields signaling with his flashlight and applied the train’s emergency brakes, but it was still moving at a high speed when it hit the car. The train was carrying 180 passengers, and when it finally came to a stop, two passengers were treated with oxygen after breathing gasoline fumes from the wrecked car. Another person suffered an injured knee, according to an Amtrak spokesperson.
The passengers had to disembark the train and wait 5 1/2 hours while another locomotive was brought in to replace the one damaged in the collision before resuming their journey.
Her guardian angel
O’Shields called DeVall Tuesday night to make sure she was all right. She told him she had tried to go to work that day, but had to leave early to go home to rest. That’s when she called him her guardian angel.
Said O’Shields, “She believes in guardian angels.” Now, more than ever.