CEO seeks strangers who spared him a cold, lonely death along Hwy. 401

Alone and shivering in the dark, his car failing, Colombian student William Corredor feared he’d freeze to death. Spying a farmhouse off the 401, he made for its light – and found rescue, a new outlook on life and an unforgettable story. Four decades later, the Miami software CEO wants to find and thank the strangers who saved him.

Article content

Alone and shivering in the dark, his car failing, Colombian student William Corredor feared he’d freeze to death. Spying a farmhouse off Hwy. 401, he made for its light – and found rescue, a new outlook on life and an unforgettable story. Four decades later, the Miami software CEO wants to find and thank the strangers who saved him. Randy Richmond reports.

Article content

In the cold and dark, a farmhouse.

Advertisement 2

Article content

The only light I see.

If I try to make it, I might die.

If I stay here, I’m going to die anyway.

A drive up the dirt road and a knock on the door. No one answers.

Wind and snow whip the cold deeper into his bones.

He huddles back inside the car.

I am so tired. It’s OK, I guess I’m dead.

Who knows how long he’s out?

He comes to, hanging in the air, men shouting and a shotgun aimed at head.

William Corredor pauses at this twist. He has told this story before. It’s a pebble he keeps in a pocket of his mind and fingers in his thoughts, rolls it this way and that. He pulls the story out to look at and to show his children and they say, this story gets more polished each time we see it.

Now he wants to people who gave him the story to hear it.

“It’s a life and death story. Actually it was the other way around, a death and life story,” he says.

Born in Colombia, Corredor came to the U.S. as an exchange student in 1979 and, after living with a family in southern Illinois for a year, got into Purdue University’s engineering program.

His sister lived in Ogdensburg, N.Y., and at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Corredor made the drive from the Indiana campus to visit her in his 1972 Datsun.

Advertisement 3

Article content

After one Christmas visit, he headed back on the Canadian route on Jan. 10, 1982, stopping to visit a cousin in Toronto for a few hours.

“I chose the wrong night and the wrong time to travel,” Corredor recalls. “I remember it was really, really cold. I remember on the radio somebody saying it was -28 C with the wind chill.”

When Corredor left Toronto about 10:30 p.m., the temperatures had fallen to -20 C with a wind chill of -35 C, snow and blowing snow, according to historical weather records.

About an hour outside London, he could feel the car’s interior getting colder.

“The car got extremely cold inside, and I couldn’t make any sense of that. Eventually, it got freezing inside. The heater wasn’t producing any heat at all.”

Corredor stopped, got his clothing and put on as much as he could. Another shirt, a sweater, his winter jacket, even another pair of pants.

“It was really windy and cold outside. Just stepping out of the car for a few minutes was a bad idea.”

Back in the car, shivering, no amount of clothing could get him warm. A few minutes down the road, smoke started coming from under the hood.

Advertisement 4

Article content

William Corredor
In the 1980s, William Corredor, seen here with Chicago’s skyline behind him, was attending Purdue University in Indiana. (Supplied)

Oh my God, the rad’s overheating. That’s why the heater isn’t working, and I don’t have any water, Corredor thought.

The engine started knocking, so Corredor stopped again. He got out of the car. A truck went by and he waved for help. The driver kept going.

Every mile or so for the next while – seven, maybe 10 times – he had to stop to let the radiator cool.

“Every time I went out of the car, it was horrible,” he says. “I was just freezing.”

A few trucks went by and Corredor tried to flag them down, but none stopped.

You have to remember that in 1982, Highway 401 wasn’t as busy as it is now, he says.

An average of 42,800 vehicles travelled the highway on a winter’s day in 2019, provincial records show. In 1988, the earliest year records are available, the number was almost half: 22,100. There are no traffic records at all for 1982, never mind for one of the coldest nights of the year.

About midnight, Corredor figures, he pulled over.

“I sort of gave up,” he says. “I was pretty sure I was going to freeze to death, it was too late at night and nobody would go by.”

How long will it take to find me? he wondered. Will they find my passport and figure out who my parents are? How will they do that and what will my parents do?

Advertisement 5

Article content

“My brain started to play games on me. I can still remember all the things that were going on in my mind. The Earth was turning and I was outside of the Earth. It was going to continue to turn even if I die.”

He drifted away in the silent night.

At some point, a large truck drove close by and shook the car. Corredor awoke, with no feeling in his fingers and toes, but a thought warming in his mind.

This is crazy, I’m stopped here for no reason. I might as well drive. If the engine breaks, well, it breaks, but I’m going to die if I stay here, he thought.

He started to drive, very slowly.

“Suddenly, I saw a house on my right. Just a single light about a mile off the 401. There was a tiny road that went to it.”

He wasn’t sure what to do. If I drive there and I don’t make it, I’m dead, Corredor thought.

Nobody’s going to go on that road at all. But if I stay here on the 401, I’m dying anyway.

“Eventually, I thought, ‘I’m going to go. It’s the only light I see.’ ”

He made a slow drive up a short dirt road, maybe two or three kilometres from the highway.

One light shone on the small, two-storey farmhouse, modern for the time.

Advertisement 6

Article content

Corredor got out of the car and knocked on the door, but no one answered. No other lights came on.

It was far too cold to stay outside, so he returned to the car.

“I just gave up. My brain was not functioning. I just lost consciousness.”

For how long? 45 minutes, maybe an hour – he had no sense of time.

He awoke hanging in the air.

1972 Datsun
The 1972 Datsun that William Corredor drove down Highway 401, trying to get back to university in Indiana, on Jan. 10, 1982, one of the coldest nights that year in Southwestern Ontario. (Supplied)

“Somebody was grabbing my winter jacket by the neck. I’m six feet and my feet were just hanging. I was actually hanging in the air.”

He could make out seven or more farmers, all with weapons, all pointed at him, one double-barrel shotgun right at his forehead.

Where’s your friend? the man holding him in the air shouted. Where’s your friend? everyone started shouting.

“I just woke up. I couldn’t understand anything. They kept screaming and all the guns and everything was very, very scary. I kept thinking, ‘What friends? What are they talking about?’ ”

All Corredor could do was point to his car. The farmers looked into his car but saw no one. Maybe his car’s broken, someone said.

As near as he can recall through the freezing and fear, someone figured out there might be something wrong with the car.

Advertisement 7

Article content

The farmers lowered him to the ground, put their rifles away and hurried him into a farmhouse, right next to the fireplace.

“Freezing is nothing. You just get dumber and dumber by the minute, but unfreezing is really painful,” Corredor recalls. “I could hear my bones crack. It was like someone pinching me with needles everywhere.”

The farmers and probably farmers’ sons – Corredor could now see many were in their 20s, not much older than him – apologized over and over.

He made out from their chatter that an elderly woman living alone in the farmhouse had seen a car pull up and thought there were men inside coming to rob her. She phoned for help and like an emergency in any farm community, many hands showed up.

He doesn’t remember much about the few hours spent by the fire. He probably got food and drink.

“They were very, very kind. They showed the Canadian welcome at the end. Not the beginning,” he adds with a laugh.

He recall someone saying they put water in the radiator, but it kept flowing out. He doesn’t know how they fixed it.

Corredor had afternoon classes that day, the first of a new semester, and was in a hurry to leave.

Advertisement 8

Article content

“You know you never want to miss those first classes. So I insisted I get home. I should have stopped and got a motel or something,” he says.

Instead, after a few hours of rest, he left in darkness on the morning of Jan. 11, and made it to the Windsor-Detroit border. A guard there wouldn’t accept his visa and kept Corredor there until 9 a.m., when he could call and confirm Corredor was a Purdue student.

Purdue University student
William Corredor, a Purdue University student in his 20s, found himself driving alone on a bitterly cold Southwestern Ontario night in a failing with no heat on Jan. 10, 1982. (Supplied)

Corredor finally made it back to campus. “I slept for about two days,” he says.

He’d always been a good student.

“I was always a little bit of a nerd. I love to study a lot. And I did study a lot,” he says.

But something inside him had changed.

“I could see the whole world in a different manner. It was almost immediate, that night gave me a different meaning to life,” Corredor says.

“In the sense that you understand you are very irrelevant, that what you believed did not make much difference. It was what you did that made a difference. Time became very, very valuable, because I could see how short the whole thing could be.”

He ended up getting three degrees, in computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering. After graduation, he returned to Colombia and started a utilities and communications software company.

Advertisement 9

Article content

Over the next few decades, Corredor built that company, Open International, into a corporation with 500 employees and business in 19 countries. He married, moved to Miami in 1999 and helped raised three children, all adults now.

His family and friends have all heard the story of the night of the rescue.

The experience has become a touchstone of resilience throughout his life. What does this little struggle or this setback mean? Nothing really, compared to what almost happened, what could still happen.

“I always compare what happened that night, it comes almost automatically. I mean, I get bad news and I remember and I think it’s not that bad. That night became my pivot point for everything. It’s the comparison, the reference point. So, you know, it’s difficult to get worse than that.”

He tries to use the memory of that night to guide others, he says. “I tell everyone, it’s not so bad. No worries.”

As time goes by and life throws up more challenges, the point of that experience has only grown for him.

“You build a strength into that, more and more. My kids say that the story gets better with with the years, but it does in my mind, it does get better.”

Advertisement 10

Article content

He’s often thought of his rescuers, who they are, what they remember. Somewhere between Toronto and London might still live a group of people who saved his life that night.

Now 62, Corredor recognizes the younger farmers will be his age, and some of the older ones may have passed away.

He emailed The London Free Press last month, saying: “I realize that the longer I wait, the slimmer the chance becomes of meeting my rescuers and personally expressing my gratitude.”

Corredor hopes this story, photos of him at that age and his car jog the memory of his rescuers. He vows to return and thank them personally, if anyone contacts the newspaper.

“Maybe somebody will remember something and say, ‘Yeah, I was there that night.’ That night I was so eager to just get home that I didn’t get any contacts,” he says.

“It’s kind of sad that they saved my life and I don’t even know who they are.”

[email protected]

Article content