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Wrestling official Baxter scores escape as pickup bursts into flames

Bob Baxter

In wrestling, sometimes an escape can be worth more than one point.

In one case, a perfectly timed escape meant the difference between life and death for an Iowa wrestling official.

Last weekend, Bob Baxter was headed to Council Bluffs, Iowa to officiate at the 2018 Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic -- a two-day tournament featuring 40 high school teams from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Minnesota.

Baxter -- a mat official for 46 years -- had left his home in Sioux City, Iowa about 6 a.m. Saturday, heading south on I-29 along the Iowa-Nebraska border to make it to Council Bluffs for weigh-ins at 8 a.m. About ten miles north of his destination, he heard a thud.

"All of a sudden, the front driver's side dropped and the vehicle went out of control," Baxter told the Sioux City Journal. "I almost went into the center ditch, but I kept it upright and managed to get it (across lanes) to the right side of the road."

After bringing his pickup to a stop, Baxter smelled something burning. Presuming the smell was rubber from a tire blowout, the veteran mat official left his Chevy Silverado, examined the wheel and noticed the wheel had broken off entirely and was wedged beneath the vehicle. "That's why it didn't go all the way down," Baxter told the Sioux City paper. "The tire and hub were on their side and dragging."

Baxter re-entered the cab of his truck... which, in seconds, burst into flames. He tried to exit but the door was jammed. Unable to break the window with his elbow, the former wrestler (a 1972 grad of Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City) used a flashlight to smash the driver side window and throw himself backwards through the opening. It was at that moment the truck exploded into flames, throwing Baxter backwards onto the I-29 pavement. Thankfully, he was not burned or injured in any other way ... but lost the contents of his truck, including his cellphone, wallet and referee's uniform and related gear.

Witnesses called 911. Iowa State Police and fire trucks from two local departments showed up within minutes to put out the fire and file the necessary reports.

Baxter got a ride to the Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic, where other officials provided him with a referee uniform and all the other equipment he needed to officiate... and lent him a cellphone so he could call his wife Maureen to let her know what happened and that he was OK.

After officiating at the tournament, Baxter was offered a ride home with a participating team.

Days later, Bob Baxter reflected on the incident ... and how others jumped in to help.
"What happened to me along the way that day, it shows how many of us are really proud of wrestling, proud to say we wrestled in high school and college," he said. "The wrestling family is so tight."

This fiery incident and incredible escape adds up to just one more chapter in Bob Baxter's long and distinguished career as a wrestler and official spanning more than 50 years. In February Baxter will be welcomed into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Officials' Hall of Fame.

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