St. John Neumann parishioner hailed as a first-responder hero

Officer Kyle Botica’s fast action saves man’s life, helps prevent traffic incident from being a tragedy

By Bill Brewer

Sometimes the road less traveled really does make all the difference. Just ask Kyle Botica.

The University of Tennessee Police Department officer has been saluted as a hero for saving a man who collapsed in the emergency lane of Interstate 40 as the fifth-wheel camper trailer he was tending burned out of control.

But to hear him tell it, Officer Botica shouldn’t have even been on I-40 driving by the vehicle fire.

The emergency situation unfolded on Oct. 21 as Officer Botica was running errands in West Knoxville on his day off.

As he drove westbound on Kingston Pike, Officer Botica decided on a spur of the moment to take the interstate instead. As he approached the Pellissippi Parkway interchange with I-40 west, he noticed thick black smoke ahead. When he neared the overpass, he could see a large camper being pulled by a truck was on fire.

He immediately pulled in near the rig to lend assistance.

“I didn’t see any emergency vehicles in front of me or behind me, so I knew nobody (first responders) had responded yet,” said Officer Botica, a corporal who has been with UTPD for eight years. “As I got close I could tell it was the back end of a tow-behind camper trailer that was on fire.”

Officer Botica’s training quickly kicked in once he saw the smoke.

“I had to stop to make sure no one was hurt and everyone was out of the trailer,” he said. “As I approached, one guy was trying to use a fire extinguisher, but it was way too engulfed. I convinced him he needed to get farther away.”

The 30-year-old corporal explained that a couple of other people were attempting to separate the pickup truck from the camper trailer while belongings were being pulled from the burning camper. But it was a rapidly deteriorating situation that was increasingly dangerous.

“Fortunately, the men got it unhooked and the owner moved the truck from the trailer,” he said.

But that’s just when the emergency escalated, and all of Officer Botica’s first-responder skills were summoned.

“While we were moving away from the trailer, one of the men in front of me just collapsed. We picked him up and moved him away from the trailer. He was about 20 feet from the trailer when he collapsed,” he recalled.

Although contained to the camper trailer, flames from the fi re could be seen lapping upward against the bottom of the overpass. Passersby took video of the incident from their smart phones and shared it on social media.

“Once we moved him to a safer spot, a woman who identified herself as a nurse had stopped to assist, and neither she nor I could find a pulse on the man. So we started CPR. My training kicked in at that point. We get so much training and we must renew our certification every two to three years. When it’s ingrained that much, it becomes reflexive,” explained Officer Botica, who noted that he worked as a lifeguard as a youth and has maintained his CPR certification, but he never thought he would have to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

He applied chest compressions, and the unidentified nurse used a portable mask to apply oxygen. Officer Botica believed the man suffered a cardiac event after inhaling smoke. He said there was so much of it that many, if not most, of those assisting inhaled smoke from the fi re.

By this time, bystanders who the corporal instructed to call 911 had phoned for help. He and the nurse continued CPR until firefighters and emergency medical services arrived to take over. The Knoxville Police Department, Knoxville Fire Department, and an AMR ambulance responded to the scene.

The camper trailer was a charred husk by the time the Knoxville Fire Department extinguished it. The fire blocked most lanes of I-40 in both directions during the emergency.

“When he (the man who collapsed) left in an ambulance, he had a pulse and made it to the hospital. He did not die at the scene,” Officer Botica said.

Officer Botica, who attended Sacred Heart Cathedral School and graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School in 2008, believes his presence at the scene was divine intervention. He has no other explanation for being at that location at that time when his normal route was Kingston Pike.

“That change of route on a whim that put me on I-40 as that fi re was going on was miraculous. You could definitely see God’s hand in this. There was no real specific reason for me to change from Kingston Pike to the interstate,” he said.

Officer Botica described the scene as “chaotic” when he first arrived. That’s when his training—and adrenaline—took over.

“I was in a position where I could help, and the last thing I would ever want was to know I could have done something but I did nothing. And it was the right thing to do,” he said, adding that he believes he would have stopped had he not been a police officer but he would not have had the training.

Officer Botica wasn’t sure how the man fared after he arrived at the hospital, but he was hopeful everything turned out OK. He also didn’t have the identity of the nurse who also stopped to help, but he is grateful that she responded and took quick action, too.

“It’s so encouraging to see people put themselves in harm’s way to help a neighbor,” he said. “You’re wired to go toward things that are not going well. You never know how you’re going to react in a situation like that. A person does unique things under the effects of adrenaline.”

Officer Botica credited the University of Tennessee Police Department for preparing him to respond to just such an incident where lives are at stake. And since it happened, the Knoxville Fire Department wanted to make sure his superiors were aware of the feat. An assistant fire chief wrote a letter to Officer Botica’s chief crediting Officer Botica for saving the man’s life.

Since joining the department, he spent three and a half years on the night shift before moving into the investigations unit for nearly four years. Now he works on day-shift patrol.

“The UT Police Department is a really good place to work. They have a lot of really good people there, and they give us excellent training. We’re fortunate the University of Tennessee provides funding for us to get training to handle traumatic events like injuries as well as CPR,” he pointed out.

Officer Botica and his fiancée, Cathy Varga, are parishioners at St. John Neumann in Farragut. He has been active in the Diocese of Knoxville Frassati Fellowship for Young Adults, and he and Miss Varga are co-leaders of the young-adult group at St. John Neumann, where she has been a lifelong member.

Miss Varga is a fifth-grade teacher at Farragut Intermediate School.

The couple plans to get married in 2021.

Officer Botica is confident he would react the same way again. Experience in similar situations is invaluable.

“Moving forward, I think it would be much easier. It’s the kind of practice you don’t want to make perfect, but it has the same effect when you do it.”

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