It was Joe Heberline’s day to be a hero. Ready or not.
To hear him tell it, the whole thing was over almost before it started.
Heberline’s act of heroism began around 1 p.m. on Feb. 27 when a California Highway Patrol officer waved him down by an overpass on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Heberline, on temporary upgrade as a truck driver for the Merced Irrigation District, pulled over.
“I knew something was going on. The CHP stopped me and asked what I had in the back of the truck,” Heberline recalled. “He didn’t tell me what was going on.”
The officer told Heberline to bring the truck closer to the overpass. Heberline complied.
“I had no clue what was going on. I just felt the guy fall in the truck,” he said. What was going on was this: A 35-year-old man, Raul Munoz, had abandoned his wheel chair on the overpass and then climbed over a guardrail. He was hanging onto it, ready to drop into traffic when CHP officer Greg Houser arrived on the scene. Houser grabbed the man by his jacket to keep him from falling.
Next on the scene, only moments later, was Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, who grabbed Munoz’s arm. Their grip on Munoz was tenuous, which made Heberline’s arrival a great stroke of luck.
Heroism, Heberline can tell you, is really just a matter of timing.
Heberline still didn’t have a clear idea what was going on, although the officer might have mentioned something about a guy needing to fall into his truck. When a cop tells you something like that, it’s not the time to start asking a lot of questions.
Heberline got the truck moved pronto, and almost immediately felt a bump. The officers had lost their grip when Munoz’s t-shirt tore and he had fallen. Heberline got out of the truck and walked around to have a look.
“I climbed into the back of the truck and he was lying on his back,” recalls Heberline. Munoz was conscious. Conscious and extraordinarily lucky to be alive. Without the truck to shorten his fall, Munoz would have traveled another six or seven feet—a critical distance when you’re talking about the rapid acceleration any object experiences with each additional moment of free fall.
Heberline remembers a fireman and an ambulance being on the scene immediately. Houser and Pazin had bought Munoz some valuable time by delaying his fall as long as they could.
Emergency personnel climbed into the back of the truck to administer aid. “They worked on him in the back of the truck, put him on the board, made sure his vitals were good and all that,” says Heberline. “They made sure he was good to move and then slipped him out through the back.”
Meanwhile, Heberline was just trying to “stay out of the way. And making sure the truck was working all right.”
An account in the Merced Sun-Star says that Munoz was transported to
Joe Heberline, California Highway Patrol, Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Merced Irrigation District, Raul Munoz, Greg Houser, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, Merced Sun-Star, Doctors Medical Center,
in Modesto. Later that evening a nurse told the newspaper that Munoz had been evaluated and that there were no plans to admit him to the hospital.
Whatever had led Munoz to the overpass that afternoon, Heberline and the law enforcement officers had given him a second chance at life.
Heberline faced some new challenges of his own. The 22-year-old “hero” had to go back and face his co-workers.
“They just did what could be expected, they’re going to joke around,” he says. “Something like that doesn’t happen every day.”
A week after the incident Heberline was honored by the California Highway Patrol in a special ceremony. He thinks he might also have received some kind of acknowledgement from the governor, but he’s not sure about that. Actually, Heberline is more than ready to just let the whole thing go.
“To tell you the truth I didn’t feel like I did anything. I hope anybody else would have done the same. It just kind of all happened,” he says.
Hero, ready or not.