THE AGE OF RICKY BURRESS, THE BOY WHO SAFELY STOPPED HIS FATHER'S TRUCK EARLY SATURDAY ON A CAPITAL BELTWAY EXIT RAMPT AFTER HIS FATHER HAD A HEART ATTACK, WAS INCORRECTLY REPORTED IN SOME EDITIONS SUNDAY. HE IS 11. (PUBLISHED 06/16/99)

An 8-year-old Virginia boy grabbed the wheel of his father's tractor-trailer as it swerved off a Capital Beltway exit early yesterday morning, stopping the rig safely and calling for help as his father suffered an apparent heart attack, state police said.

Despite the boy's efforts, his father, Ricky Burress, 40, of Cedar Bluff, Va., died shortly after the 2:30 a.m. incident, police said.

"He was a very brave little boy," said Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. "He was very in control, considering the situation, and we all hope our [children] would act so responsibly and act so quickly at a time like that."

The elder Burress was stricken on the exit ramp from the Beltway's outer loop to westbound Interstate 66 as he and his son, also named Ricky, headed toward the Lexington, Ky., terminus of the trucking company for which he worked.

Earlier that night, the two had delivered a load of automobile windshield glass in Baltimore.

The boy told police that his father had not been feeling well since Thursday, and that shortly before the elder Burress slumped over the wheel, he had awakened his son, who was sleeping in the cab, and asked him to sit up front and keep him company.

Police said the younger Ricky climbed up front and then noticed his father seemed to fall asleep. The tractor-trailer, which was then exiting the Beltway onto I-66, drifted left, hitting an exit ramp sign and a light pole, the boy told police. The younger Burress ducked.

When he peeked over the dashboard, he saw the truck drifting right on the empty exit ramp. That's when the youngster grabbed the steering wheel and applied the brake, bringing the truck to a sideways stop that blocked both lanes of the fortunately empty exit ramp, police said.

Ricky immediately called for help on his father's CB radio, and two truck drivers quickly showed up. Police and rescue squads arrived soon after, taking Ricky and his father to Inova Fairfax Hospital. The boy was not injured, Caldwell said, but remained at the hospital until his mother arrived from Cedar Bluff.

Yesterday, family members reached in far southwest Virginia said they were immensely proud of the boy but stunned by his young father's death.

"Ricky's the best person who God ever put on Earth. They never made another man like him," said the elder Burress's sister, Gilda Burress, of Tazewell. "And his son is God's angel.

"He never complained of being sick," Burress continued. "He went to the hospital back in March with the flu, and they told him he was in perfect health."

His aunt credited Ricky's familiarity with trucks, and some supervised efforts at driving, for his stopping the rig safely. She said family members allow him to share the wheel on short drives around their neighborhood in the tiny town of Cedar Bluff (population 1,290).

Burress, an employee of Rainbow Trucking Co. in Knoxville, Tenn., was on the final stretch of his standard Lexington-Baltimore-Lexington run, which he drove about once a week, his sister said. A hard-working man, Burress commuted from the mountain town of Cedar Bluff to Lexington each week, she said.

Caldwell said of the youngster, "No doubt he spared his own life and others, potentially, by being so in control."

Gilda Burress said that her nephew loved his father's life in the big rig and that it was not unusual for the two of them to share the cab on trips.

"It was the first or second trip he went with him this summer," she said. "He loved to be with his daddy."

Police reported that the youngster seemed very familiar with trucking procedures and loads, explaining to them in trucker parlance the kind of load his father had delivered.

Young Ricky has faced adversity before. His aunt said he was born premature but has grown into a healthy, robust child. She said the father's spirit will live on in his son.

"Everybody loved Ricky," she said. "And oh, honey, everybody loves the baby. I can't wait to get my arms around him."