On the charred landscape of Clark County where unprecedented wildfires raged, causing countless damage on March 6, Corey Holt is the only person who died.
He was a 39-year-old out-of-state trucker driving a big rig at the wrong place, wrong time.
Holt’s girlfriend, Jennifer Hyer, is still grieving.
Hyer, 38, is determined to drive from her home in Abilene, Texas, to the spot on K-34 where Holt died that evening, “because I just want to know,” she said Thursday. She wants to see where he died, just be there, and keep trying to understand.
“We’ve got to learn something from that day so it never happens again,” Hyer said.
“Throughout this, I’ve had a lot of ‘Why? Why? Why?’ ”
For Hyer, one question is why that stretch of highway had not been shut down that day to keep drivers from going into the smoke and flames.
That day, fire crews and emergency workers were overwhelmed by dry-grass fires, fed by shifting winds, that spread across the southwestern Kansas county.
As she understands it, Holt was driving a familiar shortcut on his way to Dodge City. She said the Oklahoma City trucking company he worked for had given him an award for his reliability.
All she knows is this: When she talked to him on his cellphone a little after 5 that evening, he sounded extremely frustrated. He cursed. He said he couldn’t see because of smoke and was trying to turn around.
And then his phone went dead. She assumed he hung up because he was so busy with his problem. When she tried to call back, he never answered.
‘What he loved’
Hyer said she and Holt met about 15 years ago when they were co-workers. His wife was in the military and stationed in Abilene. Holt moved, got divorced, and then about two years ago they became involved, Hyer said.
“Facebook brought him and I back together,” she said.
Though his employer was based in Oklahoma City, he moved to Texas about a year ago to be closer to her, she said. She works as a case manager serving clients with intellectual disabilities.
“I know trucking is what he loved. We just knew that this was it. Taking care of his family was No. 1, and if that meant him staying away from us to do his job (on the road), that is what he did.”
Holt was a second-generation trucker and had been driving for at least 10 to 13 years, she said. He hauled every kind of food item in a refrigerated trailer.
“Corey, he liked to be on time, he didn’t like to be late,” Hyer said, her phrases punctuated by sobbing. Sometimes, he drove in a convoy. But that day he was on his own.
“He was a very good driver,” she said, “a very smart driver.” He had driven in all kinds of conditions, including tornadoes in Oklahoma and Texas. But Hyer said there was one situation in which he would refuse to drive – ice.
‘Something’s not right’
From their shared email account, she could see the spot where he stopped his truck that evening and tried to back up and pull forward to turn around when he ran into the dust and smoke. The terrain is rolling there, with high banks beside the road.
When he didn’t answer after his phone went dead, she said, “My gut just told me, ‘Something’s not right.’ ”
She contacted his relatives. His sister told Hyer to stay positive.
A little after midnight, she got the call – that his mother had received the official notification that he had died.
The Kansas Highway Patrol told reporters that it appeared Holt was driving a semi on K-34 east of Ashland and north of U.S. 160 when poor visibility caused by dust and smoke caused him to stop and start backing up. The rig ended up jack-knifed on the highway. Holt got out of the truck, was overcome by smoke and fire and was found near the rig, the Highway Patrol said. Two SUVs crashed into or around the truck, injuring several people.
Hyer said a trooper told her that Holt would have survived if he had stayed in the truck cab.
Holt’s obituary said he was born in Enid, Okla., and played basketball and football at Enid High, where he tied a school football record with nine interceptions. He graduated in 1996.
The obituary noted his love for Nike tennis shoes. Besides the Nikes, Hyer said he always wore OU Sooners caps or clothing and decorated his truck cab with Sooners stuff.
Among his survivors is his 15-year-old son. “He was wonderful father,” Hyer said.
Her plan for now, as she continues to grieve, is to have someone weld steel into a cross.
And then she hopes to place it at the spot where she lost him.