CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Marine Sgt. Justin Erler came across a nightmarish scene of twisted metal, broken glass, flipped automobiles and severely injured people on the Okinawa Expressway during the wee hours of Dec. 1.
A passenger vehicle struck a compact car, which flipped onto its roof, said an Okinawa Prefectural Police spokesman. Both were driven by Japanese nationals.
A U.S. military truck then barreled into those cars, and Marine Master Sgt. Hector Trujillo — who had pulled over to help the injured Japanese motorists — lay in the road critically injured after being struck by yet another vehicle.
Erler, a 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion boat mechanic, jumped into action and performed CPR on Trujillo, with assistance from Cpl. Matthew Dungan and Lance Cpl. Eduardo Rosario — both of the 9th Engineer Support Battalion — until paramedics arrived.
The three Marines have been credited with saving the life of the 44-year-old father of three.
Trujillo, a motor transport chief who was headed to physical training when he came upon the crash, was airlifted to Naval Medical Center San Diego where he is in critical condition. His family said through Marine officials that his condition is improving.
His wife, Maria Trujillo, wrote a message on Facebook noting how her husband could have continued to work, leaving the situation to others.
“He of course didn’t do that,” she wrote. “He followed his heart and he pulled over to assist and help. His selflessness and quick reaction showed his true heroism.”
Trujillo suffered a fractured skull, broken ribs, a bruised lung and was knocked unconscious, police said.
Witnesses told police that Trujillo, who has served in the Marine Corps for more than 20 years, was in the road rendering aid to the victims as cars whizzed by in the right-hand lane. He reportedly took an ill-fated step over the center line and was struck by a car driven by a 28-year-old Marine staff sergeant.
Like Trujillo, Dungan and Rosario were also heading to PT when they came upon the wreckage. Dungan blocked the lane with his vehicle so that no more cars could do more damage. That’s when he saw Erler heading for the injured master sergeant.
“There were some cars out in the middle of the road,” Erler told Stars and Stripes during an interview last week at Camp Hansen. “The first thing I did is I just ran to go assess and see what’s going on. That’s when I found the master sergeant. He was unconscious and he wasn’t breathing.”
Erler began chest compressions right where the master sergeant had fallen near the median. Dungan and Rosario assisted him.
“All of us have kind of been brought up the same way,” Dungan said of his fellow Marines. “If we see somebody [in trouble, helping] is just what we do. We have to help them; we can’t just leave them.”
Erler said the situation got personal when he saw Trujillo’s wedding ring.
“If this was me, I would want someone to keep me going for my wife and my family,” he said.
Trujillo responded to the CPR and began breathing, so the Marines carefully turned him on his side and placed him in the “recovery position” — which essentially looks like the fetal position — using Trujillo’s arm to stabilize his own head. Then the Marines began talking to him.
“He wouldn’t breathe unless you talked to him and told him to breathe,” Erler said. “That also kind of signaled to me that there was something there; he’s still there. Him trying to breathe for me gave me a sense of hope. He still had a lot of fight left in him.”
An ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later.
“After everything had happened, that’s when the emotion set in for me,” Erler said. “It was pretty surreal – something you don’t expect to happen. Just thinking about his family. That hit me pretty hard.”
The driver of the compact car that overturned was taken to a hospital but did not suffer major injuries, the Okinawa police spokesman said.
Police are investigating a case against the Marine staff sergeant for negligent driving resulting in injury. However, Japanese authorities have yet to decide whether to charge him or let the U.S. military handle it internally. He has not been taken into custody and has been cooperating with the investigation.
The Marine Corps is also investigating the incident, said a spokeswoman who declined to comment further.
The trio credited with saving Trujillo’s life insist they are not heroes.
“I’m a human being just doing what I hope any other human being would do,” Erler said. “[Trujillo] is the hero. He’s the one who actually put his life at risk to help someone.”