Trial By Fire

Written by Matt Hollingsworth

The True Story of Tennessee State Trooper Sgt. Lowell Russell

When recounting the events of March 13, 2012, one can be nothing less than amazed; not at what happened to me in those early morning hours and the days that followed but at the power and glory of God that was to be revealed. The scene of the accident looked like something out of a war zone. I was, by all human accounts, supposed to die—not just one way, but many ways. Let me tell you the story.

It was roughly 0250 hours, and I had just finished a traffic stop on I-40 in Knoxville. It was a cool, late winter morning as I sat on the shoulder of the interstate alone, having already released the driver from the stop. I was making notes on the citation for court when the accident occurred. Pretty much everything that happened to me from that moment through the next several days was relayed to me secondhand.

While working on the citation with my emergency lights still activated, a flatbed semi-truck veered out of its lane, striking the back of my cruiser. The impact threw my car several hundred feet forward and into a tailspin, eventually ending up against the inside barrier wall on the opposite side of the west-bound lanes. It was later discovered that the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel of his rig.

Almost immediately, my car burst into flames, and here is where you begin to see the providential hand of the Lord intervening. Chief David Rausch of the Knoxville Police Department later said this about the event: “As we say time and again—divine intervention. It’s a game of seconds. If neither the officers or the paramedics had been in the area, we would have had a much more tragic situation.”

Within seconds of the impact, an ambulance from McMinn County (approximately an hour from Knoxville) was returning to Athens, Tennessee, after transporting a patient to a Knoxville-area hospital. As the ambulance crested a rise in the road, the driver, Paramedic Freddie Leslie, and his partner, Kristi Graham, spotted my cruiser as it was still spinning toward the inside wall! They came to a stop on scene almost at the same time the cruiser was coming to a halt.

The impact had knocked me nearly a football field in length from where I had been sitting. The truck driver brought his truck to a stop as quickly as possible; even then it took over 1,000 feet to accomplish the task. He also came running to my aid as the paramedics arrived. It was as if God was saying, “I’ve got you covered from all angles, son. Now, watch this!” A Knoxville Police Department (KPD) K-9 Officer, Andrew Keith, had been en route to assist another officer on a vehicle search when he came upon the wreck, also within seconds. He was on scene moments after the others and was able to call for additional assistance from the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD), KPD, THP, and Rural Metro Ambulance Services.

Freddie and the truck driver both tugged at my door and it popped open. While exhausting two fire extinguishers and starting on a third to keep the flames back, they worked frantically to free me, but my seatbelt had pulled tight from the impact. Dennis Stevens, a painter who had been working at the nearby Sam’s Club, was just leaving work and stopped to help. He “just so happened” to have a box cutter on him that he used to begin cutting me free. He and Officer Keith, using his own knife, worked together to cut me loose from the seatbelt just as the flames started spreading. Running out of time, with one last-ditch effort, Freddie pulled me by my left leg, loosing me from the car. Officer Keith, Freddie, and the others pulled me from the vehicle and began CPR just seconds before my seat was fully engulfed in flames.

Shortly after, KPD Officer Steve Taylor arrived to assist. He had seen me earlier, while I was on my traffic stop, and was able to quickly return to the scene of the wreck when the radio call for help went out. His lone act may have made the difference in my survival. As Freddie and Kristi were performing CPR on me while awaiting Rural Metro for transport, the ammunition in what was left of my trunk began to explode. Officer Taylor jumped into the ambulance and drove it between us and the burning cruiser so as to shield the paramedics and myself.

So many people quickly fell into place in such an extraordinary fashion. KPD Officer Fred Kimber could be heard on the radio coordinating traffic control along with the other officers. KFD quickly arrived to extinguish the flames. Rural Metro brought me safely to the emergency room where the Lord worked miracles in the days to come through the doctors and nurses at the University of Tennessee Hospital. He worked through my various therapists, not to mention the thousands of prayers from all around the world. Even after being delivered from my burning cruiser, I was not out of danger. I would remain on life support for fourteen days before being stable enough to have my first of two neck and spinal surgeries.

Before we proceed, let’s look at how I should have died:

1. Impact—The impact was so severe that it crushed a Ford Crown Victoria to about half its normal size. It was estimated that the semi was traveling at approximately sixty-nine miles per hour at the point of impact. The whiplash alone from the impact should have destroyed my organs and spinal column.

2. Fire—I should have been consumed in the fire. Period.

3. Ammunition—Hundreds of rounds of live ammunition that were in the trunk were igniting in the fire and exploding.

4. Fractured Skull and Broken Neck/Back—My skull fractured at the base of my neck. This type of fracture can lead to the spine puncturing the brain and ending life as we know it. I survived this injury. My neck and back suffered multiple fractures.

5. Infection—Due to the massive trauma my body endured, I had to receive large quantities of antibiotics to stay alive. One infection was cleaned up only for another to try and take its place. There was a fear of pneumonia at one point, although, thankfully, it never took hold.

6. Smoke Inhalation—I had damage to my lungs from the black smoke emitted from my cruiser while trapped inside the inferno.

Although I don’t really remember anything from the crash itself, I do have several memories from the previous twenty-four hours. Less than 48 hours before I was to work the last shift I would ever have in a patrol car, I had been interviewed by Dylan Belcher, a student at Sequoyah High School, for a term paper he was doing on law enforcement. Ironically, I had told him that law enforcement officers were more likely to be killed in a car crash than by any other means.

I remember preparing for work that day, an overtime assignment bringing me in early. I had been reflecting on Frankie’s time as a police officer as I walked into my room and looked at my gear. As I was standing there looking at the brass, the badge, the patch, and the uniform that I had worked hard for and tried my best to honor, an uncanny thought popped into my head: “I wonder how many officers killed in the line of duty knew within themselves that day would be their last time putting on the uniform.”

The last memory I have prior to going on sum was that I had decided I wanted to visit Frankie’s grave. I was missing him a little extra, and maybe you could call me melancholy, but it was just one of several oddities from the day. After paying my respects, I met with my friend, Alcoa Police Officer, Dustin “Cookie” Cook. We had a good time chatting for about 15 minutes before I left to go on patrol. I remember meeting with Cookie, but I can’t recall the conversation.

Dylan’s interview, Frankie’s grave, my own thoughts…coincidence? Some may say, yes. I believe somewhere deep down in my heart the Lord was preparing me for what was coming. In Isaiah 55:8 the Bible says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.” I don’t know exactly what the Lord wanted to accomplish through the memories He allowed me to retain from that day. However, the thought I have is that the Lord knew what I needed for my strength while lying in the hospital bed. These memories provided mental and emotional strength for me during my recovery.

One thing I do know is that while the days following were very hard to accept, I found the words of Christ first given to the Apostle Paul in his time of affliction rang more and more true each passing day. II Corinthians 12:9 says, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” If I was to glory in my infirmities, the Lord gave me much to glory in!

I didn’t understand everything I was going through as I was going through it, but the Lord showed me bits and pieces of His will along the way. The previously stated passage was a great starting point. It showed me how I would be able to react to it all. There are several key elements at play in this verse and the one after. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Wow! What a loaded statement! God’s grace was, and always will be, present in my trials. It’s often been said that grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve. I know that there is nothing special about me, and God doesn’t owe me anything, but in His goodness, He promised me, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Hebrews 13:5). Even while I was at death’s door, God was with me. Psalm 23:4 states, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” That support would give me extra strength to push ahead for one more day.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Notice, this is His strength, not mine. When we are at our weakest moments, God is at His strongest. We are forced to place full reliance on Him and not ourselves. It’s something that can’t be fully explained; rather it has to be experienced. When you are at the end of your abilities, strength, hope, etc… that’s when God can step in and flex His muscles. It’s the very nature of God to show His creation how great He is. Read Psalm 86:5: “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.” God is good and “standing at the ready,” waiting to show Himself to each and every one of us. What a blessing! His strength is how I would make it.

The how I should react was the tougher pill to swallow. It’s not easy to smile when going through a fiery trial. Nonetheless, the passage says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities [the how], that the power of Christ may rest upon me [the why].” If I can joyfully accept the hard times that have come my way, I am promised a special vantage point from which I can watch the power of Christ work in my life! It, too, is something that cannot be fully explained; rather, it has to be experienced. I will admit, prior to March 13, 2012, I wouldn’t have asked for any of this. Since then, however, I have had the pleasure of seeing the Lord work in me and through me in ways I would have never imagined.

My book was entitled Trial by Fire for a reason. I was pulled from a burning car just mere seconds before it was fully engulfed, receiving some burns in the process. My trial the Lord chose for me was both a literal and spiritual fire. In helping me endure the sometimes painful process (physical, mental, and emotional), the Lord began showing me truths in His word, and it seemed as though they came when I needed them most. Not only did He promise that He would see me through it (Hebrews 13:5), He also declared in I Corinthians 10:13, “…but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

The Bible has a lot to say about fiery trials. For now, the Lord wanted me to look at my understanding of why it happened. It is in our human nature to ask why when going through a hardship. God understands this about us and anticipates such fears and uncertainties. I Peter 4:12-13 helped me accept my fate and settle the why in my heart and mind more than any other passage of Scripture: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”

There is so much at work in this passage! First, he calls me His beloved. One thing this job has taught me is that there isn’t much love in this world and it is definitely lacking for those who stand in the thin blue line. But HE loves me and that’s all that matters. He also gives some hefty advice. God says twice in the passage that fiery trials aren’t by chance. As the old saying goes, “Did it ever occur to you that nothing occurs to God?” God allowed me to almost be killed and go through a painful rehab process for a reason. It wasn’t by accident that the accident happened—it was by divine providence. It was time to sit back and watch the glory of the Lord be revealed as He gave me joy in my troubles!

This brought me to the next stage in God revealing His will to me. Perhaps the greatest, yet simplest why was answered when I read Philippians 1:12: “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel.” Had I not gone through this, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to share the Gospel of the Lord like I have today. My ultimate goals for you, the reader, are to understand your eternal options and fully comprehend what it means to be saved. The Lord saw fit to let me experience what I underwent as a means to share His good news with all who would read this book. His ways are not our ways for sure, but they are better!

Speaking of fiery trials, the Lord does say a lot about the refiner’s fire. The refiner’s fire works to burn away impurities in order to produce a purer product. Isaiah 48:10 says, “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” It’s a holy thing to read this passage and realize that God picked me out, that He did the refining and that He was there with me (notice it says He chose me in the furnace of affliction).

Affliction is never pleasant. Yet in the hands of the perfect Master, it works a perfect work, better than one could ever imagine. It kind of reminds me again that “His ways are not our ways”! For a good Bible study on the nature of God as a purifier of men, study Zechariah 13:9 and Malachi 3:2-3.

Perhaps the greatest blessing of all was seeing what He promised would be the end result of enduring the fiery trial. Job 23:10 and 14 deliver this message: “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold… For he performeth the thing that is appointed for me: and many such things are with him.” I am promised to become a better person when I come through the fire than before entering if (that’s a big if!) I submit my will to Him.

Possibly the most beautiful thing the Lord showed me from His word is the truth and reality about His unfailing presence with me in my trial. Just as He was in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the book of Daniel, the Lord was with me and orchestrated EVERYTHING that happened in my rescue. Not only did He have the paramedics immediately on scene, the KPD officers shortly to follow, Mr. Stevens with his box cutter to cut my seatbelt, and the truck driver to assist, but take a moment and look at the photo—did you notice my driver’s door standing wide open? The impact of the semi crushed the entire cruiser in an accordion effect. No other door would open.

For all intents and purposes, my door shouldn’t have been able to be opened. If my door had jammed up like all the other doors I would not be here today. All the concerned citizens, police, fire and EMT personnel wouldn’t have been able to save my life. That door opening was THE key. God showed me this in Revelation 3:7-8: “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he [Jesus] that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.”

Humanly speaking, two men opened the door of my cruiser that morning, but it was only possible because GOD allowed that door to open! Personally, the true depth of this passage has not sunk in, and I don’t think during this lifetime I will ever attain the knowledge to discern just how powerful it really is! It was as if God said to me, “I know you, Lowell, you are one of mine. I know your works, your desire to aid your fellow man. You have been faithful to me and have not denied me. Right now, you have no strength. Behold, I set before you an open door that no man can open or shut. Here, now, for you my son, are some of my servants, and they will help you.”

God Provided an Open Door… That to This Day Will Not Shut!

About the author

Matt Hollingsworth

Matt Hollingsworth is the chief writer for the Bingham Group where he writes articles for Monroe Life, Farragut Life, and McMinn Life magazines. He has a degree in publishing from Belmont University and has previously written content for Aspire—Clinton, TN's largest park. In his spare time, he writes science fiction with Christian themes.

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