Being late isn't always a bad thing. In fact, if you're not on time, you might save lives.
In the early morning hours of Thursday, May 29, 2003, I flew from Los Angeles (LAX) to Houston, Texas (IAH). Our 1:00 AM arrival was delayed by 20 minutes. This was the first lucky delay that day.
When I arrived at the rental car counter, the attendant had decided no more flights were arriving and that it was a good time to take her break. I called the rental car customer support line, the attendant was located, and she finally returned to help me with the rental. This was the second unplanned delay.
I left the rental car facility and headed north on the Hardy Toll road. A twist of fate would soon change three lives forever.
As I sped down the toll road, and just minutes away from my destination, I saw scattered road debris. I quickly came upon a battered SUV pinned against the toll road concrete side railing.
I was calling 911 before my car stopped rolling. I had passed the wreck by about 30 yards, and when I exited the rental car, I saw a red flicker from under the hood of the wrecked SUV. The SUV was on fire.
I ran to the side of the SUV and could see through the smashed windows that both passengers were unconscious.
The fire under the hood was growing rapidly and I was afraid of an explosion. I stood about ten feet away from their SUV and started yelling hoping the occupants would wake up. I was sure the SUV was going to blow up at any second.
I asked the 911 operator when the emergency crews would arrive, and she said they were coming. But I didn't hear any sirens. And the one or two cars that drove by didn't stop.
It was obvious that the occupants weren't waking up and they weren't going to get out of the SUV on their own. I swallowed my fear, moved to the SUV, and opened the damaged driver's door.
The driver of the vehicle had been thrown into the back seat. The passenger was still in his seat and was regaining consciousness. The driver was unconscious. I decided that assisting the driver first was best and opened the rear drivers-side door.
I reached for the driver, yelling for him to wake up the whole time, and he started to regain consciousness but was incoherent. He had a serious head wound. It took me less than a minute to extricate him from the SUV, put his arm over my shoulder, and then drag him to the shoulder behind the SUV.
Then I turned my attention to the passenger. He had regained consciousness and started screaming that he was trapped. The fire under the buckled hood had grown considerably and I could feel the heat as the flames began to lick at the windshield.
The car’s passenger, a young guy who looked no older than twenty-five, was trapped. His legs were crushed between the seat and the dashboard. He couldn't extricate himself. As the flames grew, he begged me not to leave him to die.
As I struggled to remove him from under the dashboard, he began screaming. Both his legs were broken. And I couldn't get him out from under the dash. Since reaching him through the driver's side door wasn't possible, I jumped in the back seat and tried to pull him out from in between the two front seats. That didn't work either. Thinking fast, I reached in between his door and the seat, lowered his seat back, then pulled under his arms from behind. Although he was screaming in agony, I was finally able to work his broken legs from under the dashboard.
After getting him out of the vehicle, I threw him over my shoulders in a fireman's carry (that I learned during my days in the Marine Corps) and brought him to the shoulder of the road where the driver was now seated and holding his head in his hands.
Then I turned around to look at the SUV. The whole cab was fully engulfed in flames. The emergency crews had still not arrived on the scene. And although two cars drove by during our ordeal, neither car stopped to help.
Fate was on the side of those two young men that night. If my plane was on time, or if the rental car person hadn't taken her lunch break, or if I had made my trip a week earlier as had originally been planned, then I would have been in bed in Los Angeles at the time of the accident.
I don’t consider what I did as heroic. During this whole event, I was scared shitless. I’ve watched cars explode on television countless times and I was sure that was going to happen to me too. But I couldn’t have ever forgiven myself if I hadn’t tried to save them.
I’ve always wondered what happened to those two guys. They never contacted me afterward and I never learned their names.