By Lauren Jow
Orange County Register
IRVINE, Calif. — As flames licked at the front of the crumpled car, the driver sat slumped and unconscious, his legs pinned by the dashboard and the steering wheel pressed into his chest.
There were no police, no paramedics yet to view the crash on I-15 at 1 p.m. Jan. 17, 2012 – just Robert Davidson and Craig Ritter, two off-duty firefighters on their way to Las Vegas. Spotting the car, which had smashed into a steel pole, they pulled over 80 yards ahead on the dirt shoulder behind a freeway sign in what should've been a textbook-safe maneuver.
Neither firefighter can quite wrap his head around what happened next.
More than a year after the incident, sitting in Station No. 20 in Irvine a couple weeks after receiving the Medal of Valor from the Orange County Fire Authority, Davidson simply shrugged and quoted Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
They had just come to a stop when another vehicle crossed four lanes of traffic at a 40-degree angle and crashed into Davidson's car, totaling both vehicles.
Davidson checked on his buddy – fine – and glanced at the other driver – already on her phone.
Adrenaline racing, he ran to help the trapped driver in danger of being burned alive. Later that night, doctors would tell Davidson his right shoulder was separated and his sternoclavicular joint was injured in the crash.
The doors wouldn't open, so he broke the right rear window to provide ventilation and slipped inside. With a shirt tied around his face, Davidson supported the driver's airway and stabilized his spine, trying to move him as far away as possible from the flames, which he kept at bay with an extinguisher.
Ritter flagged down truckers to use their extinguishers on the outside of the car. The smoky air filled with popping, breaking. People screamed. A crowd had gathered.
“It was like pandemonium outside of the vehicle, but it was calm where I was because I knew what I had to do,” Davidson said.
It was 20 minutes before firefighters arrived with the Jaws of Life to remove the roof and extricate the driver. He died later at the hospital.
Davidson, 41, of Placentia, wouldn't change anything about that night – except maybe parking further off the road. He did his job, which was getting the man out of the car alive. After that, there's only so much you can undo in the human body, he said.
“Yes, I wasn't in my uniform, but my uniform is just a formality of what's really behind the badge. I was just trying to … bring a happy ending to a bad situation,” said.
Although the 15-year firefighter-paramedic went above and beyond the call of duty that night, that kind of heroism is commonplace from a man whose compassion is unparalleled, colleagues said.
He's the type of guy who will follow up and visit patients in the hospital when he gets off duty, said Ray Valenzuela, an OCFA battalion chief. Every day it seems, people Davidson has saved call in, send cards or stop by the station to say thanks, but he's not one to blow his own bugle, Valenzuela said.
“I'm working with Superman,” said Brian Coney, the senior-most firefighter at Station No. 20. “This guy is always there to deliver somebody or make things better.”
Though it's been a year since the incident, when Davidson sees an accident on the side of the road or passes that stretch of freeway – the memory of that night comes flashing back.
“There's nothing to me more precious than life,” he said. “Buildings can be rebuilt. Cars can be patched, painted, or a new one can be bought. But a life – you only get one shot at it, and when it's gone, it's gone.”
Republished with permission from Orange County Register