Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Derek Werner, of Poplar, has been named one of the top four Troopers of the Year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Werner was nominated Montana’s Trooper of the Year in January for exemplary performance in two crises last year – including his single-handed initial response to a 10-car pile-up during a blizzard in which he is credited with saving the lives of many, including children. Earlier this week, he was selected the top Mountain Pacific Trooper of 2011 – a region of 14 western U.S. states and western Canada. Werner is the only Montanan to ever win the designation and is now one of four U.S. and Canadian troopers or constables in the running for the IACP and Motorola Trooper of the Year.
“He exemplifies what we want from a Montana Highway Patrol trooper,” said Col. Mike Tooley, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol who nominated Werner as Montana’s top trooper. “He has a quiet confidence.”
That confidence was on display last March 11, 2011 when a spring snow storm blew into northeastern Montana, where Werner, stationed out of his hometown of Poplar, works.
“Visibility was terrible,” said Sgt. Jeffrey Kent, Werner’s immediate supervisor. The temperature was approaching 30 below with the wind chill. Blowing snow made it impossible for drivers on Montana Highway 2 – the main corridor across the Hi-Line – to see much of anything.
Werner was on routine patrol just before noon when he drove up on a bad accident that threatened to become much worse: A van with several occupants – including two infants — had hit a large drift of snow and crashed, blocking traffic in both directions. Oncoming traffic couldn’t see the obstruction and began plowing into the van.
“Four accidents had already occurred and more were occurring when I drove into (the scene),” Werner said.
The trooper called in the wreck and went vehicle to vehicle, assessing injuries and moving people to safety. Some dazed victims were wandering the roadway, including one driver with a young boy. Werner put all the children in his cruiser, along with the parent of the boy found in the middle of the emerging accident scene.
Werner modestly describes the wreck, but according to Kent, the dashboard video of the accident shows a harrowing scene, with Werner pulling victims out of stranded cars moments before more cars hit, putting himself at risk time and again and saving victims from more serious injury or death.
The total wreckage involved 10 vehicles – including a semi tractor-trailer – and 18 people. All of them survived, many with only minor injuries. Werner’s selfless response is credited with preventing the accident from becoming worse and saving lives.
Later that year, Werner was at home on his day off when he got a phone call from the Poplar Police Department: Two swimmers were being washed away in the current of the Missouri River. Could Werner grab his own boat and help?
“In a matter of minutes, he was able to locate the two guys,” Kent said.
The two struggling men were blue from the cold and clinging to the tops of trees growing on a flooded sandbar when Werner found them. Werner pulled one man into the boat and the second let go of the branch he was holding and tried to swim over, but he started to go under.
“I whipped over real quick and we grabbed him,” Werner said.
Both men survived.
Werner, an enrolled tribal member of the Fort Peck Tribes, started his law enforcement career with the Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice. He has been with the Highway Patrol for four-and-a-half years.
The winner of the IACP/Motorola Trooper of the Year will be announced on March 30.
“Trooper Werner exemplifies the very best of the Montana Highway Patrol — and Montana,” Attorney General Steve Bullock said. “We are all safer because of dedicated troopers like him.”