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Portrait of Ryan McCombs, director of the Disability Access Center at Purdue Fort Wayne

DAC director's heroic actions helpful after accident

By Blake Sebring

December 13, 2023

Only because his mother asked him to bring something sharp, Ryan McCombs had his pocket knife that day. Fulfilling mom’s simple request might have helped save someone’s life.

At approximately 3 p.m. on Oct. 28, the director of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Disability Access Center was leaving home to drive to the Michigan state line and meet his parents who had been caring for McCombs’ 1½-year-old Newfoundland dog Sitka. McCombs’ mother had asked him to bring a knife to cut open a bag of dog food.

As he was climbing into his truck, McCombs looked up to see a car crash without slowing into another vehicle at the corner of Lake Avenue and Old Maysville Road, flipping the first car onto its side and shoving part of it into the oncoming lane. The car that was hit held a mother and her two children, ages 6 and 3, who were coming back from a birthday party.

“I quickly ran over, though I’m not someone who can run because of my legs,” said McCombs, who suffers partial paralysis in his lower limbs because of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIPD, a neurological disorder that targets the myelin sheathing around the nerves. “I wasn’t even paying attention to anything else because adrenalin just took over. It was an eerie silence.”

The car that was hit was halfway through a left-hand turn onto Old Maysville when the other vehicle came around the curve heading east.

“I’ve always said that I hate that turn because people fly around that corner,” said Katie Westfall, the mother of the children, a girl and a boy. “I have seen more than a few near-accidents there. I tried to speed up to avoid her, but it was too late.”

Pulling out his cell phone to call 911, McCombs never looked in either direction while crossing the road, but other cars had already stopped. The driver of the second car had already pulled herself out.

“It was by far the scariest day of my life,” Westfall said. “I remember thinking I needed to stay calm for the kids and get them out and to safety as quickly as possible, but I didn’t know where we were in the road; if we were in danger of being accidentally hit again; or if there was a chance fluid had leaked out and the car was in danger of catching fire. I was so scared about how I was going to get my kids out of the car.”

Then she heard McCombs’ voice asking if she was okay and how many people were in the car. He then asked if she could lift the children up to him.

“I heard crying, and it was one of the kids,” McCombs said, “and by the time I got to the vehicle the mom already had both kids out of their car seats, and I lifted them out of the car.”

Because he’s 6-foot-5 inches, McCombs was able to lean over the vehicle to reach as Westfall handed him her children. The doors had taken the brunt of the impact and would not open, but the windows had been shattered.

McCombs used that pocket knife he was carrying to puncture the airbags that had deployed and temporarily trapped Westfall before he was able to lift her out as well. The entire time he was talking to the 911 operator. Shortly after that, he received a big hug from the daughter.

“He helped us more than he will ever know,” Westfall said. “Ryan saved us that day. From calling 911, to helping me get my kids to safety, and then even helping me contact my family to come to the scene. I will never be able to thank him enough.”

A pair of nurses driving home after a shift came upon the accident and checked everyone before the EMS arrived within five minutes. The mother suffered a cut chin along with bad bruising and swelling along her arms, shoulders, back, chest, and legs. Both children had bruising on their arms and chest from their seatbelts. The little girl also had bruising on her face and head.

“The car seats honestly saved their lives, and they were all wearing their seatbelts,” McCombs said.

As the scene cleared, a wound-up McCombs continued on his trip to Michigan. He said he was still feeling the effects of adrenalin during his drive home a few hours later.

Westfall’s dad called McCombs the next day to thank him for his quick action, and Westfall texted him the following morning to thank him again.

McCombs said this experience can hopefully encourage students to be more careful while driving as the weather deteriorates.

“I think if anything, you need to be cautious of things for one, but also remain calm throughout the entire situation,” he said. “Specifically for students, if they are in an accident and are injured in any way with concussions, breaking or spraining something, they can seek services through our office.”

More than 500 PFW students are currently connected to the DAC, with another 100 in the paperwork process.