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Ellenwood HERO driver wins award for second time

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Marcus Bennett was broken down on the side of the interstate. Stranded. Late for a job interview.

He needed the job, and now he was late and his car was overheated -- antifreeze bubbling over and turning into steam, cars zooming by on Interstate 75.

Bennett was sitting there, looking at the dashboard light thinking about that job when a HERO truck, the Georgia Department of Transportation's bright yellowish-green Highway Emergency Response Operator rig, pulled over to the shoulder to see if he needed help.

"I remember thinking, 'That seems like a really cool job, to help people,'" said the Ellenwood man. "You have to have the type of personality where you want to help people. And you're not law enforcement, you don't do law enforcement things, but you help keep order on the highway."

That was 10 years ago. Bennett applied for a job driving the HERO trucks and he's been doing it since. Standing by his truck at the HERO headquarters under Interstate 85 last week, Bennett said his fated mechanical problem led him to his true life's work.

"We have saved a lot of lives just by being out there," he said. "We prevent accidents, or, if there's already an accident, prevent further tragedy. We just try to help, so an accident doesn't become another accident, then another accident and a whole pile-up."

In 2006, Bennett traveled more than 33,000 miles, doing daily highway patrols in his HERO rig. He assisted more than 2,000 motorists in need of help. He responded to crashes, flat tires, broken-down cars, spin-outs, and even a woman in labor.

At the end of 2006, Bennett was named the program's "Road Warrior," a coveted award HERO drivers earn by driving the most miles, responding to the most calls, keeping a perfect safety record and holding a good record for vehicle maintenance and attendance.

This year, Bennett won the award again. "Which is pretty incredible," said Jerry White, Bennett's supervisor. "I don't think anybody's won the award twice in a row. Or twice, period. It's so prestigious for the operators. It's bragging rights."

White told Bennett, the week before Christmas, that he was going to be assigned a new HERO truck, because his old one had so many miles on it. He joked with Bennett that it was a Christmas present from the state. Then he found out, right before the holiday, that Bennett also was receiving the award.

"I thought, 'Well, this is just perfect,'" White recalled. "I said, 'Merry Christmas.'"

White said Bennett has succeeded as a HERO truck driver because he's friendly, patient and understanding. Bennett has been given a lot of responsibility in training new drivers because of those characteristics, and he's helped a lot of people on the sides of metro Atlanta's intestates.

"Ninety percent of the time, this job is about communication," the supervisor said. "The main thing is, when people get into an accident, their mind is going 100 miles per hour and they're in neutral. Someone like Marcus can talk to them, bring them down, bring them into focus. He can walk in and look at the situation and know what they need, because he has excellent people skills."

Bennett, personally, has a much simpler explanation for the job he does everyday on the regions highways. "We help people get off the highway and be safer," he said.

No one has asked him the question he asked when he was helped back in 1997 -- Where do I apply for your job? -- at least not yet, but a lot of people question his response time, Bennett said.

"People always ask us, 'How did you get here so fast?,'" he said. "The reason we're there so fast is, we were already out there."

He laughed, comfortably, his hand on the hood of his new truck. His hand leaves a mark on the dirty metal, which is unwashed because of water restrictions caused by Georgia's prolonged drought. He looked at his hand, and his face grew serious.

"It makes me nervous, though, being out there and seeing accidents and thinking that could be your [own] family," he said. "You just have to let it go and, 'go with the flow,' like they say. But, if people would be more courteous, that would help a lot."