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Caltrans snowplow operator aids lost man on cold Christmas night

Robert Fish, Caltrans snowplow operator
Robert Fish, Caltrans snowplow operator Caltrans

On a typical workday, Robert Fish just clears snow from Interstate 80. But on Christmas Day, he helped a man find his way home.

Authorities had been searching for 77-year-old James Mengel of Citrus Heights since Christmas Eve, when a family member had reported him missing as of 11:30 p.m. that night. Citrus Heights police said that his family believed Mengel was driving alone.

He had been seen at Holy Family Catholic Church in Citrus Heights on Old Auburn Road near Sunrise Boulevard, but never returned home.

The California Highway Patrol early Christmas morning issued a Silver Alert, which provides information on missing persons, particularly the elderly or anyone with mental disabilities.

Fish, a Caltrans snowplow operator working his shift, didn’t know Mengel was missing.

But there, in the dark at about 9 p.m. Thursday, along snowy I-80, was a man in need of help.

Fish, a seasonal equipment operator working out of Truckee, saw the man trying to wave down traffic near the eastbound Hirschdale Road offramp, according to a Caltrans news release.

It was Mengel, without a jacket in 18-degree weather, in need of help. It had just stopped snowing and the wind was blowing. Fish stopped his snowplow, and Mengel told him that he had been involved in a hit-and-run crash and that his truck would not run.

The side of the truck was damaged and a taillight was out, Fish said this week. Mengel was wearing pants and a shirt and had only a light jacket.

“He wasn’t dressed for Truckee,” Fish said.

As he talked with Mengel, Fish became concerned, noting mannerisms similar to those exhibited by his stepfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Mengel spoke softly and seemed disoriented, Fish said.

Fish asked him whether he had AAA roadside service, and Mengel said that he did. Fish then called Caltrans Snow Communications Center to request a tow truck and the CHP, the agency that had put out the Silver Alert for Mengel.

“I got him up in the truck and turned the heater on high, and I tried to give him some coffee,” Fish said. They talked as they waited, and Fish said Mengel seemed like a very nice man.

A CHP officer arrived and determined that Mengel was the man missing from Citrus Heights.

Fish, who lives in Colfax with his wife, three daughters, four grandchildren, three dogs and a flock of ducks, was lauded by his boss.

“I’m proud of Robert for his actions that night,” said Donner Pass Superintendent Dave Wood in the press release. “His responsiveness ensured a happy ending to what could have been a tragic situation.”

Wood said Caltrans snowplow operators come to the aid of people in various circumstances, but they rarely learn the outcome. In this case, Wood said, Fish told him he wanted to know what happened to Mengel. After several phone calls, Wood said, he was able to assure Fish that Mengel was doing well and had been reunited with his family.

Call The Bee’s Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079.

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