You might imagine that tow trucks (wreckers) would be a boring topic, but they are not. To see why all you need to do is take a look at some YouTube video clips from the Canadian reality TV show Heavy Rescue 401. For those unfamiliar with southern Ontario, Highway 401 (also known as the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway) runs for 514 miles east from Windsor (at the U.S. Border) to Quebec. In metro Toronto it is the busiest (and one of the widest highways) in North America. Add high winds, winter snow and freezing rain and you get a plethora of accidents involving tractor-trailer rigs flipped on their sides or roofs. With the high temperature today for Boise forecast to top 95 degrees, watching winter snows on TV at Netflix is a pleasant change.
This was the second series of its type. The first, Highway thru Hell, was about the Coquihalla Highway through the mountains of British Columbia. Both use the mantra that ‘closure is not an option.’ One Heavy Rescue 401 episode showed eight wreckers working together to clear a row of three rigs (the morning after the 402 had been closed due to whiteout conditions). And, one of those rigs is a double tanker full of propane! Some of the companies have several generations of families.
When you watch Heavy Rescue 401 you will learn lots of trucker jargon. There also is some Ontario jargon. Lanes for through traffic on the 401 are express lanes, but the local ones feeding them are called collectors. An intermodal container is called a sea can.
There are lots of impatient drivers doing dumb things on the 401. (At 0:50 take a look at the display wall of traffic cameras in the COMPASS Traffic Operations Centre at the Ministry of Transport). Those dumb things include trying to sneak around the diagonal echelon formation of 14 snowplows trying to clear the road.
Wreckers on the 401 often are monsters called rotators – really custom built, half-million dollar, mobile cranes with telescoping and rotating booms and a capacity of 70 or 80 tons. They are Kenworth or Peterbilt trucks with four or five axles. Rotators also have several other winches.
A trailer is attached to a tractor to form a semi-trailer truck using a kingpin, which engages a fifth-wheel coupling. It is easy to back a tractor up and hook onto an upright trailer. But when the trailer is on its side or upside down, it’s tough to uncouple them. Sometimes the trailer isn’t stable, and just a single sledgehammer blow can upset it.
Rigs have air brakes. When the air pressure is removed, springs set the brakes. Before you can tow, you have to hook up air to release all the brakes (or you will have to mechanically undo them individually). On one show the tow operator had to patch a puncture in an air tank with a self-tapping screw. On another the operator had to use a screwdriver to chisel and turn a broken brass fitting, which he then replaced. (That guy was a refugee from the civil war in Sri Lanka, who started driving in Canada by delivering pizzas!). You also need to remove a tractor’s driveshaft before you tow.
Intermodal containers are locked onto their flat trailers at four corners. The locks have to be opened before you can flip one filled with 20 tons of whisky.
Sometimes a trailer is torn at a seam (and it holds 15 tons of beer which has to be handled delicately). Other time it is split open, or buckled (like a banana), and is so damaged it has to be unloaded before it can be moved. (That buckled trailer turned out to have extra tons of ice that had settled at the center of the roof).