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A man on fire

August 19, 2020

Warning. This post contains graphic content and detailed descriptions of the scene of a car accident. If you have experienced this type of trauma you may not wish to read this post. Others may find this post disturbing as well.

We were on the road west to Vancouver after a few days on vacation in the BC interior. In the passenger seat, my friend was the first to notice the pickup truck a few cars ahead of us veering back and forth on the highway. It was towing a long trailer loaded with a handful of canoes and barrels. My wife and two kids were in the back seat watching the scenery and chatting.

As we rounded a bend a few kilometers outside the town of Princeton, the pickup drifted wide – taking up the eastbound lane of the 2-lane stretch of highway. A Subaru coming the other direction swerved out of its way, kicking up gravel on the far shoulder as it swung wide around the truck and trailer. “Jesus!” my friend said. “He nearly hit that car.”

A few minutes later we entered Princeton. Ahead of us, the pickup truck drove straight at a curve in the road and careened over a berm. The trailer bucked and threw the canoes into the air in all directions. We saw a cloud of dust rising, and then reached the point in the road where the truck had left it. I pulled over and put on my warning lights. I yelled – to no one in particular – “Call 911!” and got out of the car.

The pickup was down the embankment across a small gravel parking lot. It had crashed directly into a large douglas fir several feet across, making a vee of twisted metal deep into the front of the vehicle. It was on fire. Flames had engulfed the driver’s side of the truck. Other cars were stopping at the roadside. I scampered down the bank. There was a man banging his hands against the inside of the passenger side window, yelling. I could see dark smoke in the cabin. I hesitated, then ran to the truck and tried to pull the door open. It was stuck fast. The fire was growing and I could feel its heat on my face and arms.

A man appeared at my side. He tried the door and then stepped back. My mind was blank as I stood there next to the burning truck. The man stooped to pick up a toolbox that had spilled out of the truck’s trailer. The handle came off in his hand and the tools spilled in the dirt. He threw the handle down and went back to the trailer. I saw he had an Abbotsford Fire t-shirt on, and I looked up to the road where his truck was parked in front of ours – it was labeled with an official designation, but no lights. The firefighter turned back from the trailer with a canoe paddle. I stepped out of the way and he swung the fat end at the passenger window.

It smashed and smoke billowed out. The noise of the fire and the man yelling inside it increased. The firefighter used the paddle to chisel away the rough edges of the broken window, then reached into the burning car, bearhugged the man, and dragged him out over the glass. He set him down on the gravel and stepped back for a moment. I looked down at the man at my feet. He was covered in small cuts, had a bloody eye, and was half-curled in the dirt. He was heavily built, with a shaved head and tattoos. He yelled incoherently and looked up at me with confused, angry eyes. He didn’t have any shoes on. He had a massive cut on his left leg and ankle. I could see his leg bones and a baseball-sized chunk of flesh hanging off where his heel should have been.

There was another man in the truck. With the first guy out, we could see his outline in the smoke and fire. He was yelling and waving his arms. Another man ran up and he and the firefighter got a hold of the driver through the window. But he wouldn’t come out. They pulled, tried the door again, and tried to get a better grip. The fire was getting hotter, and there was more noise and vibration from the truck as it was consumed by the flames. It looked like the driver’s legs were pinned by the caved-in dashboard. Smoke and fire were now coming up the passenger side from under the vehicle.

All this took about 90 seconds. I was feeling a massive amount of adrenaline and a growing sense that we couldn’t be near the burning vehicle for much longer. The injured man glared around, cursing and groaning in pain. “My daughter,” he said. “Is your daughter in the truck?” I yelled at him as I bent down. “I want to see my daughter,” he moaned. I repeated my question several times but he was incoherent. I looked back up at the truck, suddenly considering that a child might be in the back seat of the cab. I shouted at the firefighter and asked if anyone else was inside. I don’t know if he heard me. He and the other responder continued trying to remove the driver through the truck’s passenger window.

I reached down to the man at my feet. I grabbed him under his armpits and pulled him about 15 feet away to where some trees shielded us. I could see his damaged foot dragging in the gravel as it bled, collecting dirt and stones in his gaping heel. I stopped and looked up.

The man inside was on fire. Smoke wreathed his head. Flames were now on all sides of the pickup. The firefighter and the other man were backing away from the truck.

Other people were swarming. The firefighter came over and he and 3 others picked up the man by his limbs and took him farther away from the fire to a grassy area. A middle-aged woman with a large first aid kit appeared and started triaging the man. It was evident she knew what she was doing – rapidly checking his pulse and breathing. I pointed out his ankle wound, and she cleaned and bandaged it with the help of a teenage girl who had been on the phone with 911. Another man put a finger pulse oximeter on his hand at the direction of the nurse. She turned him over and checked for other wounds. She calmly gave information to a man on the phone about the injured man’s immediate needs.

A loud bang from the direction of the truck made us all look up. The pickup was a fireball. The flames were now about 15 feet up the trunk of the tree, licking the bottom branches. “The tires are popping,” the firefighter said. We could hear emergency vehicles coming. Two fire vehicles arrived and the firefighters began getting their equipment ready and hoses pointed at the blaze. A paramedic arrived in a personal vehicle and I told her what I could about the injured man as she got her kit. She joined the off-duty nurse in attending to him.

The first firefighter and other man who had tried to pull out the driver came over to where I stood. “Those guys were smashed,” the firefighter said. “They could have killed somebody.” It was midday on a Wednesday. The firefighter shook his head and watched the other firefighters work. “Did you call them?” I asked. He said no – he was off duty and happened to be passing by. I looked down at the other man’s hands which were bloody halfway up his forearms. My friend had brought down water and I offered this to him to wash it away. “It was getting so hot,” he said.

The fire – now burning for about 10 minutes – was starting to diminish as the firefighters worked. Small explosions punctuated the air as the other tires burst. Dozens of people looked on. I didn’t look back into the cab as the fire was put out. The tree was black on the side where the truck crashed into it. Ambulances arrived and we dispersed.

I walked back to the car. My wife had been on the phone with 911 and was keeping the kids calm. They had seen the whole thing. I started coughing – the smoke and the yelling had left my throat hoarse. My wife gave me water and hugged me and asked what I needed. I just wanted to get out of there, so we drove up the road a ways and pulled off under some trees. I was still coughing and then noticed some blood on my arms and legs. She wiped it away with baby wipes from the glovebox.

I wish it didn’t happen. I wish I wasn’t there. It was so surreal. We were driving on a highway on a sunny day and then this event just comes out of nowhere, ingraining this terrifying visceral experience in our memories. I felt angry at the men. For driving recklessly, maybe drunk. What if someone had been in the parking lot when they came over the embankment? What if they’d collided head on with that Subaru? I felt angry at myself for blanking after the door wouldn’t open. No plan materialized in my head. No next step. The door just wouldn’t open. No thought to try the driver’s side. I looked at the man’s hands pressed against the window of the smoke-filled cabin, unable to think.

The first firefighter on the scene saved that man’s life. And he tried as much as anyone could to save another. I do not know what would have happened if he hadn’t arrived so quickly. The nurse took control of the situation for the injured man and calmly improved it. These people didn’t have to do any of this, and they did it calmly and selflessly. Their competence and capacity to act in a crisis were exceptional.

After calming down a bit, we got back on the road. My mind was replaying the whole thing, wondering what I should have done. I realized that throughout I felt a mixed responsibility. People were stuck in a burning car and I happened to get there first. But my kids and wife were in my car, and every step I took closer to the fire the more I felt an invisible tether pulling me back to them. “What if it blows up when you get to it?” my brain asked. “What if you die in front of your family?” “What do you owe a drunk driver in a pickup truck in the middle of nowhere?” I wondered how I might have felt differently if it was a family vehicle. If there were women or children in the car.

The news report confirmed one dead. The man’s daughter was not in the car. He was asking for her in a moment of confusion and fear. As we got farther and the whole thing sunk in, I began thinking about him more. He looked so disoriented and afraid and mad. I thought about how he’s going to the hospital and will be told his friend or colleague is dead. I thought about the dead man. Someone’s son. Someone’s brother or father. No one should die in such a horrible way. No one wakes up expecting today to be their last. I reached back and touched the bare heels of my two sons in the backseat.

Update: The truck and trailer were stolen.