Tom Kessler, of Niles, has been a volunteer firefighter with the Howard Township Fire Department for more than 20 years. Submitted photo

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First responder recalls fatal Howard Township crash

Published 5:15pm Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In his 20-plus years as a volunteer firefighter with the Howard Township Fire Department, Tom Kessler said he has never experienced anything so tragically sad as the Howard Township crash that left two Niles sisters dead and another critically injured.

Kessler was one of the first to respond to the two-car accident shortly before 4 p.m. Sept. 11 at the intersection of Leet Road and M-60.

As a firefighter, Kessler said it was his job, and the job of other firefighters at the scene, to get victims out of the car and into the care of paramedics.

Firefighters spend many hours training for these types of situations, he said, but nothing can prepare them for the real thing.

“A lot of guys ask ‘how do you do it?’ or ‘am I going to be able to handle it?’” Kessler said. “It’s the type of thing you don’t know until it happens. You either do it, or say you can’t do it, or you do it and later say you won’t do it again.

“You just have to block out what’s on the other side of what you’re cutting.”

Kessler said he had worked numerous fatal accidents before, but never one involving small children.

“Yeah it’s different — you want to hurry up and get them out,” he said. “You are trying your best ,and you think it is taking forever when it is actually five or 10 minutes but it just seems like forever.”

The driver of one of the vehicles in the crash, Sarah Michael, 19, of Niles, was seriously injured, but survived. She was carrying three passengers — all sisters from Niles — Julianna Brown, 9, Sophia True, 6, and Penelope True, 4. Julianna and Sophia died later that day from injuries sustained in the crash. Penelope remains in critical condition.

The driver of the other vehicle, a Lawton man, was uninjured.

Witnesses told police Michael failed to stop at a stop sign and was broadsided by Lawton’s truck.

At the time of the crash, Kessler, a father of four, didn’t know the identities of the victims. He learned the next day that Kirk True — a friend he plays softball with — was a father of the victims.

“I was doing OK until I found out it was Kirk … and I just imagined what he is feeling like because of my own kids,” Kessler said. “A little more responsibility came on me about what I could’ve done better out there, or what we could’ve done better as a group.”

Kessler was in uniform when he attended the funeral for Julianna and Sophia on Friday. He said he spoke to the victims’ mother, who asked if Kessler had helped work on her daughter.

When Kessler responded yes, he said the woman thanked him and all the emergency personnel that day for giving her an extra six hours with her daughter.

“To me, that helped with closure because you sit there and wonder what you could’ve done better. Did we do it right?” Kessler said. “That right there — we gave her more time with her daughter. That helped out a lot.”

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