Mike Balanda had just gone to his car to take his lunch break when he saw something rising from one of the trucks at the rest stop he worked at on Interstate 81 in Marathon.
“I just sat there wondering if it was smoke or fog,” he said.
Then the truck suddenly caught on fire. Balanda hopped out of his vehicle and ran to the truck where he noticed the driver sleeping and banged on the window until the trucker got out.
Balanda ran to get a fire extinguisher, but as soon as he sprayed it and thought he put the fire out he said it just kept coming back. That’s when Balanda noticed the power steering line was red hot.
“It was just leaking and catching fire,” he said. “Power steering fluid is very flammable when it gets on metal.”
JM Murray will honor their employees, Balanda and Joe Reh, who also helped during March 2 incident.
Balanda said he had to keep running back inside to get buckets of water to pour on it and keep it cooled down. While Balanda dumped buckets of water on the truck, the driver called 911.
Shortly after, firefighters arrived, put the fire out and then left.
“I went in the building and I get upstairs and my co-worker Joe (Reh) was calling 911 again and telling them the truck’s on fire again,” Balanda said.
He said the fire department had to come back again and spray the truck.
“This time they sprayed the whole line,” Balanda said.
He said the fire, which started around 3 a.m. on March 2, took about an hour to fully extinguish.
Balanda is no stranger to seeing fires at the rest stop where he’s a janitor. He said there’s been several over the years, noting the rest stop has seven extinguishers in the basement and a sink to fill buckets of water.
“A lot of times, the back brakes will catch on fire,” he said “A little while back, we had a tractor-trailer catch on fire because the back brakes overheated and the tires caught fire.”
Balanda used to work as an emergency tow truck driver and said his experience helped during the fire.
“If it’d been gasoline I would’ve never put water on it,” he said. “If we hadn’t put buckets of water on it I think it would’ve gotten out of hand. I‘m just happy he’s alive.”
Balanda and Reh will each receive a certificate that they can use to get one extra paid day off and a $25 gift certificate to Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar, said Director of Custodial Service Bobbie Finster.
The trucker came back a few days later to thank the two men for their “courageous efforts,” according to a news release from JM Murray.
“The man was not injured and credits Mike and Joe with possibly saving his life,” the news release said.