Firefighters finish putting out travel trailer fire south of Chehalis. / Courtesy photo by Lewis County Fire District 5
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – After the flames that virtually consumed Ken Schumann’s travel trailer on Interstate 5 were extinguished, a local man stuck around to help the Alaska resident salvage what he could of his possessions while they waited for a tow truck.
Schumann was relocating to Arizona, pulling the 31-foot trailer that has been his home for the past two years. Most everything he owned was inside, except his dog which was riding in the far back of his GMC Yukon sport utility vehicle.
“We found a coin collection, some old album photos and, I think that’s about it,” Antonio Martinez said.
Schumann, who turns 80 next month, was southbound near milepost 68 outside Chehalis just before 11 a.m. on Sunday when he thought he might have a tire fire. He pulled over and grabbed his little fire extinguisher, but quickly realized it was a losing battle, he said.
About that time, Martinez and his family were crossing the Avery Road overpass, on their way to breakfast at Spiffy’s and the father of three could see the motorist attempting to unhook his truck from the burning trailer.
“I saw the old man was struggling,” Martinez said. “I can’t believe how many people were on the bridge, taking pictures and video. I told my wife, I’m going to go help him.”
Martinez said the fire was growing so big, he told the elderly gentleman they needed to get the dog out of the truck. They struggled until they realized the end of his leash was stuck.
Schumann said he had to unhook the leash from “Spook’s” collar, and sure was glad he wasn’t alone on the side of the freeway with his unleashed pet.
Two passing motorists also stopped to help, one from Oregon and another on his way to California, Martinez said.
“In less than 10 minutes, it was gone, the trailer,” he said. “It was amazing how fast.”
Lewis County Fire District 5 found the trailer fully engulfed in flames, and put it out.
Schumann said he’d tucked away cash, not much but it was his savings, inside the trailer. He literally jumped up and hugged two firefighters at the same time, when they managed to find the money – soaking wet – among the ashes, he said.
And while the backside of his truck was “baked” as if badly sunburned, it was still drivable, according to Schumann.
“I don’t feel 80,” Schumann said Monday night after he rested. “At least I didn’t until the trailer situation.”
Schumann’s Alaska-based business, before he retired, involved traveling to do service calls to repair electronics. He liked to tinker, he said. Which is why he had three flat screened televisions and various other projects in his trailer, he said.
For about 10 years, he lived in Central America, still taking on some repair jobs after he turned his business over to his son.
“I sold my little house in Belize, took the money and bought a trailer,” he said. “All my life I’ve admired people who traveled in travel trailers. That was my chance.”
At one job on a military base in Honduras four years ago, he picked up a retired Air Force guard dog that looks like a miniature German Shepherd, but is actually a Belgian Malinois, with eyes so light blue he named her Spook, he said.
Spook has traveled with him ever since, and is a good companion except she barks too much, he said. The ordeal on Sunday apparently cured her of that.
“She has not opened her mouth a squeak since she sat and watched that trailer burn,” he said.
While Schumann and Martinez waited for the right kind of tow truck to come on Sunday, they scavenged through the debris looking for a coin collection and other items the retired businessman hoped to save.
The 32-year-old Napavine man sent his family on to the restaurant without him.
“My wife said, hey, you gonna come to breakfast? I said, I don’t think so, because everybody had left,” Martinez said. “He was shaking so bad, I felt bad to leave him alone.”
Martinez’s wife brought them back burgers, plain for the dog.
As they picked through the remains, Schumann lost his balance and fell from the wreckage onto a pile of debris on the pavement.
Schumann said he swung his arm back, gouging his wrist on a sharp beam. He didn’t see the wound, but Martinez grabbed his forearm like a baseball bat and held pressure on it until medics arrived, he said.
Schumann was taken by ambulance to Providence Centralia Hospital.
Lewis County Fire District 5′s Lt. Laura Hanson said they often find that folks stop briefly to assist in bad situations, but she called Martinez a good samaritan who stayed and helped above and beyond.
Martinez took the dog to his Napavine home, and then went to the hospital to wait until Schumann was released at about 8 p.m. The family invited him to stay over, but he wanted to overnight in Longview, so he could get to the tow yard first thing in the morning, he said.
He wanted to check for some keepsakes, he said, like a belt buckle personally given to him by Elvis Presley in Biloxi, Mississippi, and perhaps his medications from the V.A., he said. But the floor was six to 12 inches deep with charred wood and soot.
The medicine cabinet was nonexistent, and, Schumann said, come to think of it, he never even saw what had been the bathroom.
Schumann stopped Monday evening back at the Martinez’s Napavine home; he’d forgotten to write down his address. He was on his way to Wal-Mart to buy a charger for his cell phone, and then on to Seattle to talk with his insurance company.
He couldn’t have asked for a better man to help him than Martinez, he said. “All the way through this, he was so much help,” he said.
“If you use the word hero anywhere, the right place might be Antonio,” Schumann said.
The idea of moving to Arizona was his son’s he said. He was actually partial to wintering in southern Texas, in a place that is half giant flea market, half mobile home park.
“You know how crazy this is turning out, I don’t have any reason to go to Phoenix anymore,” he said.
“The insurance will cover the trailer, but at my age I wonder if I want to buy another one.”
Southbound Interstate 5 near milepost 68 on Sunday. / Courtesy photo by Kristal Tardiff