By LISA MONFORTON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, March 9, 2018
When Robert Chowns got a call to recover a car teetering in an elevator shaft, he didn't know quite what to expect. But he knew the job was smack dab in his wheelhouse.
The story of the accident unfolded when the veteran tow-truck driver with Abrams Towing pulled up to the scene.
"A gentleman wasn't so happy with his wife and chased her [with his car] and crashed into the lobby of a high-rise, into a bank of elevators," Chowns says. The wall collapsed, leaving the nose of the car hanging over the elevator shaft, "kind of teetering there with the wheels up in the air."
Miraculously, two girls who were waiting for an elevator were unhurt. The driver fled the scene, but security cameras identified him. When police went to his house, he told them he was about to report his car stolen.
Chowns, a tow-truck operator in the Toronto area for 23 years, 14 of them with Abrams, has seen all the drama that unfolds when human nature, Mother Nature and volatile emotions intersect on the roads.
Incidents such as this are relatively rare among the thousands of run-of-the-mill calls, such as boosting dead batteries, changing flat tires and towing vehicles out of snow piles in the GTA, where more than one million cars travel daily. They keep Chowns engaged in his job.
"I love the crazy ones," Chowns says. "I like the challenging stuff and doing recovery work."
Tow-truck operators such as Chowns have seen angry spouses, drunk drivers, hapless teens who wreck the family car, distracted drivers, stranded wedding parties and people whose loved ones have just been brought to hospital with injuries. Situations that are at times dangerous, crazy and even poignant often force tow-truck drivers to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Operating a tow truck is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in North America. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) reports that more than 100 towtruck drivers in North America die each year on the job. But Ontario's Slow Down, Move Over law aims to reduce the risk.
Being a tow-truck driver is not an easy vocation. Besides having patience, a sense of humour, good people skills and sound mechanical knowledge, you always have to be aware of hazards. "The dangers of the job can catch you off-guard," says Henry Freriks, who has trained at least 3,000 towtruck drivers in the GTA. He's been a trainer with CAA for 10 years and a tow-truck operator for 30 years before that.
To him, drivers who aren't paying attention behind the wheel are the latest threat to tow-truck operator safety.
"You get a distracted driver and all the rules go out the window."
"I see it on the road every day," Freriks says.
"I stress the fact [that tow-truck drivers] should wear reflective pants, vest, safety shoes.
They have to make themselves visible to people, but that doesn't guarantee safety."
Freriks saw it first-hand recently, when he was pulling a car out of a ditch and his tow truck was hit by a distracted driver. He was unhurt.
Then, there are the days when you think you're working for a vehicle-rescue operation, but suddenly you're doing a marine rescue. Chowns recalls an incident about seven years ago, when downtown Toronto was hit by a flash flood. Two police cars had blocked off a flooded underpass with yellow tape, but a drunk driver plowed through. "I had to go for a swim to get that one," Chowns says. "It was storm-drain water and it was nasty."
Sometimes, the calls have nothing at all to do with vehicle troubles. Just ask Edmonton's Todd Wells, who has been a driver with the Alberta Motor Association for about seven years.
One day, he showed up on the driveway of the client, only to be told by a woman that she didn't have a car problem - she needed a fence post hauled out.
"She's thinking, 'They've got tow trucks, so maybe they can help,' " Wells says. "I said, 'I think I can make that happen for you.' In 30 seconds, we had the post out."
Years of experience allows these drivers to handle the stickiest situations with ease. "You have to have a thick skin," Chowns says.
"I've learned how to adapt to many different personalities. It's like being a bartender," says Terry Devellano, a CAA tow-truck driver in the GTA for 10 years. "A lot of people don't realize I'm the first one there when someone is in trouble. ... I'm the person who has to calm them down," he says.
Driving into the unexpected is what the job is all about, says Devellano, whose record number of calls was 19 in a 12-hour day. "It never gets old."
Wells, in chilly Edmonton, once had to deal with 36 dead batteries in a three-block radius. He says extreme weather makes simple jobs trickier. Like the cold spring day Wells found himself knee-high in 60 centimetres of muddy, icy water, slipping and sliding in his rubber boots, trying to get a Mazda3 hatchback upright and hooked up to the tow truck.
"If I tip it over ... then I'm literally going swimming," Wells says.
In between his efforts to extricate the car from the slough, he had to keep getting back into his truck to warm up his freezing feet. The job took three hours of careful work.
In the midst of the recovery, the client asked, "Any way you could get that bag out of the back? We have some dance shoes in there."
He chuckles, "So, I jumped in and crawled in through the back to get the shoes. It's the little things like that that make things interesting."
Vehicle breakdowns are always inconvenient and, as expected, many drivers are highly emotional or agitated because of the situation they find themselves in. When the vehicle breaks down in the middle of a gridlocked highway at rush hour, for example, you feel like a sitting duck just waiting for someone to slam into your vehicle or shoot you the bird for being in their way, Devellano says.
Of course, if no one's been hurt and you're just late for work, an appointment or picking up the kids, it's not the end of the world. Devellano likes to put it in perspective for his clients, although they may not want to hear it at the time.
"I tell them if this is the worst thing that's happened to you, consider yourself lucky; it could be a lot worse."
Often, it feels like the worst day ever for an inexperienced teen driver who's just wrecked the family car.
"The young driver is so upset and afraid his parents are going to be mad," Chowns says. When the parents arrive, "I say, 'Thank God they're not hurt,' and that calms them down quite a bit."
And sometimes, there are avoidable exceptions, like the father who let his 15-yearold daughter park the family's new Jeep on an uphill driveway. "'What could happen?' the dad was thinking," Chowns says.
The underaged driver hit the gas instead of the brake and "launched the car up the hill." The Jeep ended up wedged in between two houses a metre off the ground. Chowns had to get her out via the rear hatch.
"You have to have a great sense of humour. Most people are happy to see you and say, 'Thank God you're here.' You have to put them at ease."
Besides having patience, a sense of humour, good people skills and sound mechanical knowledge, tow-truck drivers always have to be aware of hazards.