Created: Sunday, 31 March 2013 02:01
Marine trainer risks her life to pull burning man from SUV
Note: This is an archive story, this incident took place in May 2009
MORNING READ: Tustin woman saved man's life, authorities say.
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ The Orange County Register Comments 92| Recommend 20
MISSION VIEJO Shawn Alladio's pants were ripped to shreds, tattered after being too near auto tires that exploded from exposure to extreme heat.
Her sweat shirt was completely scorched, thrown down as just more freeway litter after she'd used it to extinguish flames burning on the arms and legs of a man inside a recently totaled SUV.
It was just after 11 p.m. on May 29 on the Santa Ana 5 Freeway, just past La Paz Road, and Alladio sat on the northbound freeway shoulder, inhaling the smells of burned things – rubber, fiberglass, radiator fluid.
The 47-year-old water-rescue trainer was starting to feel her own injuries, too; a broken wrist, burns on her hands and stomach.
But her pain was nothing, she said later, when she thought about the man she'd tried to help.
She meant it, too.
What Alladio saw, in the fatigue of late night freeway driving, looked like a burning comet.
She'd already had a full day, teaching water-rescue techniques to Marines down at Pendleton. It had been a hot, and she'd spent hours in the sun. But as she drove home to Tustin, the night turned damp, with a slight drizzle collecting on her windshield.
That's when she saw the Isuzu careening and rolling and, after a flip or two, exploding.
“It was like someone threw a bucket of fire.”
According to the CHP, the driver of the SUV lost control for an unknown reason and spun into the path of a bus traveling north in the car-pool lane.
Alladio's first instinct was to pick up her cell phone and dial 911. But several cars were already stopped near the burning vehicle, and she figured someone must have called.
Alladio's second instinct was to run toward the fire. Two lanes of traffic were stopped, so she got out as close as she could and started moving on foot.
As she neared the Isuzu someone yelled, “Did everyone get out?”
“It made me run faster,” she said. She thought the driver had been there longer than he had. But the horrible answer was that nobody had gotten out. Not yet.
“I thought, ‘Someone's in the (SUV).'”
What happened next took seconds.
The front and back and driver's seat of the SUV were aflame, yet when Alladio pressed her face as close as she could to the glass of the passenger side window, she saw something on the floor.
“He was unconscious,” Alladio said, “but moving.”
The windows shattered in the rising heat, but Alladio knew immediately she wouldn't be able to pull the man on her own. The door was damaged and she couldn't pry it open. It burned her hands to touch the metal.
“I kept yelling, ‘Come help me'.”
But no one did.
She also kept looking inside the Isuzu, turning away only to breathe. She was coming up with a rescue plan, and quickly figured she'd have to pull him out through the window.
Alladio also kept yelling for help.
Still, no one did.
She took off her sweat shirt and, through the window, swatted out the fire on the man's arms and legs.
“He was… like a candle,” she said.
One of those sick joke candles, maybe. Every time she put out the flames on his body, they reignited.
She also kept yelling for help, looking around at the faces near her.
Still, no one was willing. “Some just drove away,” Alladio said.
“A lot of people just stared.”
Alladio feared she might not be able to save the man.
She placed her hands under his arms and used her forearms to pivot her body against the window. That let her pull him into the seat. Then, putting her foot on the hot door, she leveraged the body to get him through the window.
The burning man was halfway out of the vehicle when she saw a car stop.
One of the passengers got out and ran toward her.
Then, others started helping.
Then, even more.
“I don't even remember their faces, just their hands reaching out,” Alladio said.
Once the man was out of the Isuzu, Alladio and others tried to pull his burning clothes away from his body.
“I felt so sad,” she said.
And, when she looked at her own body, surprised.
“I don't know why I wasn't on fire.”
She collapsed, as fatigue and the aftermath of an adrenaline rush and maybe fear caught up with her.
“I was crying. I was so angry, watching this man burn.”
It was then she noticed the first-degree burns on her fingers and second-degree burns on her stomach, which she must have gotten when she pressed herself against the hot SUV.
Her lungs bothered her and she could tell her wrist was fractured, maybe from pulling him up from the door. She didn't know.
She saw one more thing.
The burning man was not dead.
Firefighters said later that Alladio saved his life.
As firefighters neared the accident, the car was completely engulfed. Their experience on such matters led them to one conclusion:
“If anyone was going to be inside, they're going to be dead,” said Capt. Mike McGrath of the Orange County Fire Authority, who's engine company was the first to arrive.
But he wasn't inside. Alladio had pulled him out.
The man was taken to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana in serious condition. As of Thursday, he was expected to recover.