MOUNT AIRY, N.C. -- On Dec. 9, Davidson County resident Mike Axelrod was driving home from visiting family in Philadelphia after a family party. However, there was an obstacle – in the form of a historic snow storm – in his way.
“I must have passed 60 cars, 70 cars and trucks that were off the road,” Axelrod said.
With only about an hour left to go, his back right tire blew out on Interstate 74 in Mount Airy.
“At first I thought I blew my rear out of my car,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was it was so bad.”
With a snowbank to his right, he was unable to move and was stuck in the middle of the highway. Fearing for his safety and the safety of other drivers, he immediately called 911.
“It was probably one of the worst conditions you can be broken down in,” Axelrod said.
Within minutes, a stranger – soon to be friend – pulled up behind him with blue lights flashing.
“Your biggest concern is getting hit by somebody losing control or just not seeing you,” said the responding trooper, Brent Jones.
Knowing the tow trucks were all busy, Jones decided he would make an easy switch to a spare tire. But, that switch turned out to be anything but easy.
“Of course, we ran into about every obstacle we could run into,” he said.
First, the two tried putting Axelrod’s jack under his SUV. But, he had it in the wrong spot, so Jones stopped him. When they moved the jack to the correct spot, they realized it was too long to fit under the SUV with the flat tire reducing the height of the vehicle.
“You couldn’t get the jack under the car,” Axelrod said. “It was the dumbest design I’d ever seen.”
So, Jones went back to his cruiser and grabbed his jack. He laid down on the snow and slush-soaked ground and raised Axelrod’s SUV by about an inch so they could get the tire off the ground.
Then, they couldn’t get the tire off. After a lot of kicking and pulling, Axelrod was able to get it loose.
When they finally got the spare on, they found their ordeal was far from over.
“And he’s lowering it, and I’m watching my tire,” Axelrod said, realizing the spare was flat too, despite having his car serviced and the tires checked before the drive. “My tire’s getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe it.’”
Jones didn’t give up. He left flares behind Axelrod’s vehicle to protect him and drove to a nearby gas station to get him some Fix-a-Flat. But, when he returned with two cans, the tire continued to leak.
“At that point we finally threw in the white flag and called a wrecker,” Jones said.
Jones invited Axelrod into his cruiser where the two waited for a wrecker after being in the snow for more than two hours.
“I didn’t realize some of that stuff that happened after we had parted ways,” Jones said.
When the wrecker arrived, the driver brought Axelrod to the Walmart, where they have an auto shop. There, he waited until about 5 a.m. until a good man pulled up with some bad news.
“He goes, ‘Are you waiting for Walmart,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’” Axelrod said. “He goes, ‘They’re not opening today,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean they’re not opening?’”
That man was Mount Airy resident Gary Felts.
“I was raised to, if I can help somebody, I’m gonna help him,” Felts said.
The pair drove around the town looking for an open tire shop, but soon came to realize everyone had stayed home.
“It was a messy day I can tell you that,” Felts said.
Eventually, the two decided to head back to Walmart. There, they found that a skeleton crew had in fact shown up.
“I said, ‘Man, this has got to be Mayberry, there’s no place else this story can be happening,” Axelrod said.
There was still a problem. The manager in the store thought there needed to be three certified techs in the shop to work on a vehicle and only one had come in. But, Felts used a little persuasion to convince her to take a second look at the handbook.
“He goes, ‘Well, why can’t you and someone else go in and just stand there while they change and fix the tire?’ And she goes, ‘We can do that,’” Axelrod said.
The ordeal was nearly over. The tech swapped out Axelrod’s tire for a new one and got him back on the road. By the time he got home, it had been more than 13 hours since the blowout.
Axelrod knew he couldn’t pay Jones but asked if there was anywhere he would like Axelrod to donate to. Jones said he had a friend with a child at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. So, Axelrod made the first of what he says will be many donations there.
Through it all, Axelrod may have lost a tire; but, he gained two new friends, an elevated respect for the everyday actions of first responders, and a new outlook – not only on Mount Airy – but the world.
“What he did that day, really, it’ll change how I see people for the rest of my life,” he said.