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Local News

In an Instant, Good Samaritans Came Together to Save Motorcycle Crash Victims

Nicholas McGilvray and William Barbaree rushed to help a Canadian couple left maimed after a collision with an alleged DUI driver

[Noozhawk’s note: Longtime friends of crash victims Ellen and Jim Atwood have also shared their story with Noozhawk. Click here for the related article.]

Nicholas McGilvray was shopping with his girlfriend at the Vons market on Coast Village Road the afternoon of May 29, when he realized he had left his wallet in the car.

He thought about running out to the parking lot to retrieve it, but decided he would just come back for more items the following day, and soon left the market.

Santa Barbara police and firefighters investigate the wreckage of a May 29 motorcycle crash on Old Coast Highway near Montecito Country Club. A Canadian couple was critically injured when they were struck by a motorist allegedly driving under the influence, but the quick response of two passers-by is credited with saving their lives. (Urban Hikers photo)
Santa Barbara police and firefighters investigate the wreckage of a May 29 motorcycle crash on Old Coast Highway near Montecito Country Club. A Canadian couple was critically injured when they were struck by a motorist allegedly driving under the influence, but the quick response of two passers-by is credited with saving their lives. (Urban Hikers photo)

At about the same time, William Barbaree was driving with his girlfriend along Old Coast Highway on his way to the same Montecito grocery store, fresh off a shift as a surgical technician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Moments later, the two men’s paths crossed — call it fate or luck or coincidence — in what turned out to be a life-and-death situation.

The complete strangers became the silent, heroic first responders to a horrific motorcycle accident that critically injured a visiting Canadian couple traveling down the same road at almost the same time.

McGilvray, a 28-year-old Army veteran, said he doesn’t really buy into fate or some force that drives people together.

But no other explanation readily comes to mind when considering how much he and Barbaree, 31, seem to have in common — both grew up mere blocks away from each other in Santa Maria and graduated from Righetti High School three years apart.

Coincidence or not, the quick actions of McGilvray and Barbaree are credited with saving the lives of Jim Atwood, 63, and his wife, Ellen, 59, of Ontario, Canada.

The good Samaritans met with Noozhawk on Monday to share the story of the tragic event together, each providing pieces of memories when the other was still hazy.

Debris from a red motorcycle was still settling when McGilvray parked and ran to the scene, having just missed seeing a head-on collision as a red Toyota 4Runner — driven by a Montecito man who Santa Barbara police say was driving under the influence — crossed the center line and collided with the Atwoods’ motorcycle at 5:20 p.m. in the 800 block of Old Coast Highway near Montecito Country Club.

Five combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq could not prepare him for the gruesomeness of what he saw next.

The Atwoods had been thrown from their motorcycle. Jim Atwood lay where grass met pavement, and Ellen in the dirt just off the road. The impact mangled both their left legs, and Ellen’s arm was badly injured.

“I didn’t expect to see that type of trauma in the States,” said McGilvray, who left the military in 2010 and will graduate Sunday from UC Santa Barbara with an economics/accounting degree. “I remember somehow coming to the decision that his bleeding was worse than hers.”

Ellen and Jim Atwood, center, with their friends and motorcycling partners, Marnee and Bill Paterson. The Atwoods both lost legs in a May 29 crash near Montecito, and two local men are credited with saving their lives. (Paterson family photo)
Ellen and Jim Atwood, center, with their friends and motorcycling partners, Marnee and Bill Paterson. The Atwoods both lost legs in a May 29 crash near Montecito, and two local men are credited with saving their lives. (Paterson family photo)

Training muscle memory kicked in, and McGilvray applied pressure to Jim Atwood’s left leg with rags strewn on the ground, then he began fashioning a tourniquet with Jim’s belt to prevent further blood loss.

Twenty or so seconds after the crash, Barbaree saw the debris, pulled over to park and ran up to Ellen Atwood to mirror McGilvray’s efforts.

“It’s kind of triage,” said Barbaree, who also had never before applied a tourniquet outside training. “Tourniquet is always the last thing you want to do because you cut off blood circulation. At that point, it was our best option.”

Barbaree remembers several drivers who saw the collision slowing down and then driving through the wreckage, just feet away from where the Atwoods lay conscious and calm, asking their rescuers how their spouse was doing.

Paramedics and other emergency personnel arrived soon after, and the Atwoods were rushed to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for treatment of their severe injuries.

Left alone in their shock, McGilvray and Barbaree shook hands for the first time, and discovered that their girlfriends happened to be co-workers.

McGilvray learned days later that the Atwoods had been asking to meet their rescuers. Although hesitant, he contacted Barbaree, and they made the first of three visits to the couple last Tuesday.

“Everybody was crying,” McGilvray said. “Their family was there. Ellen’s saying to Billy, ‘You saved my life.’ What do you say to that? It was extremely emotional.”

Barbaree doesn’t remember saying anything.

“If you’re in this sad situation, I would want to meet the people and be able to give my gratitude without them having to say anything,” he said. “They deserve that.”

A couple of visits later, McGilvray and Barbaree seem to have become old friends of the couple, who were flown late Sunday from Santa Barbara to a hospital near their Orangeville home, about 50 miles northwest of Toronto. There, they’ll be able to continue their recovery in familiar surroundings, near their three sons and five grandchildren.

The locals have made promises to stay in touch with the Atwoods, and seem to be equally in awe of the courage and actions of those they helped save.

“His main thing was that he has his life and his wife and his family,” McGilvray said of Jim Atwood. “There are so many opportunities to draw negatives from something like that, and they didn’t. I was shocked by their positivity.

“They weren’t dwelling on the fact that they were missing a leg. They weren’t dwelling on the man that drove them off the road.”

Martin Leo Maguire
Martin Leo Maguire

The SUV driver — Martin Leo Maguire, 51 — was arrested at the scene of the crash on a felony DUI charge. He pleaded not guilty during a June 4 court appearance and is no longer in custody after posting $160,000 bail. He’s scheduled to be back in court Thursday, when a date will be set for a preliminary hearing.

McGilvray and Barbaree shun any type of “hero” title, explaining that they hope someone would do the same for them.

The new friends say they have a renewed faith in humanity in spite of the tragic incident — thanks in no small part to having met someone else who cared enough to stop and help.

“You think about really good people — that’s them,” Barbaree said of the Atwoods. “For something to happen so bad to such nice people, it really kind of makes you feel even worse. It kind of changes my perspective.

“The whole humanity thing ... knowing that there are people who are willing to do things for other people,” he continued. “None of it’s a coincidence to me now.”

McGilvray’s thoughts drift back to his forgotten wallet — a simple omission that caused him to meet another reluctant hero in the middle of a tragedy at exactly the right time.

[Noozhawk’s note: If you wish to make a donation to the Atwoods to help cover their medical expenses, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for more information.]

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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