Fire chief who saved crash victim: 'We should never seek hero status'
Chief Darren Ware was returning from a line-of-duty-death funeral when he noticed smoke on the road
By Assistant Fire Chief Darren Ware
April 20 was challenging from its onset.
The Prince George's County (Md.) Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department was conducting funeral services for one of our members killed in the line of duty.
I was tasked with coordinating mutual-aid resources and ensuring that personnel who don’t work in our system, or typically work together, would be able to do so safely and efficiently.
Upon concluding my shift and en route home, I noticed smoke on the road ahead of me.
I suspected it was likely a vehicle fire.
As I neared the incident, my suspicion of a vehicle fire was confirmed. I was surprised to discover an adult female driver was inside.
After radioing Public Safety Communications for resources, I attempted to remove the victim from the vehicle. My attempts were unsuccessful as all four doors were locked; the woman was unresponsive to my instruction to unlock her door.
With the fire beneath the vehicle growing larger and progressing into the free burning phase, I realized the increasing urgency of the situation. I hurriedly returned to my vehicle, as well as surveyed the surrounding area, hoping to find something that could be used to gain entry into the vehicle.
Although everything was happening very fast, it seemed like eternity in the face of the life-threatening situation confronting the victim.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Tyrone Wells, who was returning from the funeral and traveling along the same route, saw the incident and stopped to provide assistance.
A male bystander retrieved a construction tool from his vehicle to assist with a second attempt to access the vehicle. Forcible entry was in progress, but the victim inadvertently stepped on the gas pedal, driving the vehicle down the slope off the shoulder of the road.
The fire was now at a difficult angle with extension into the engine compartment, posing greater danger to an already challenging situation.
Time was of the essence; it was imperative to finish this rescue immediately to prevent a tragic outcome.
With the help of the unidentified bystander, Colonel Wells and I managed to get down the slope and access the passenger side of the vehicle. The new position of the vehicle had rendered the driver’s side inaccessible.
The only option
We used the construction tool to break the passenger-side window, at which time I reached inside the vehicle and manually unlocked the door.
Smoke was rapidly filling the vehicle, and the engine compartment was fully involved. It was just a matter of time before fire reached the passenger compartment.
I reached over the front passenger seat and accessed the unresponsive victim, lifting her from the driver's seat and across the passenger side of the car. This was by no means easy, but it was the only option.
After successfully rescuing the victim from the passenger side, I carried her up the hill and across the street. Barrier protection had not yet been established, but, thankfully, traffic had stopped.
Other fire/EMS personnel returning from the funeral had arrived by then, and the victim was placed in their care for further medical evaluation and treatment.
I immediately repositioned my vehicle to use it as barrier protection.
Within moments following the rescue, the woman's vehicle was fully involved. An engine company and ALS unit from a nearby fire station arrived a few minutes later.
The fire was extinguished and the patient was transported to a hospital. I made radio notifications and terminated command per our departmental protocols.
Being called a hero
Over the few days following the rescue, various news stations requested interviews. The subject of being a hero was presented often.
When I was young, I watched TV shows featuring superheroes such as Batman and Superman. A common characteristic of these superheroes is they did not want to be recognized in everyday life.
While I fully understand that members of the fire service cannot disguise themselves, we often participate in newsworthy occurrences that create media obligations we must fulfill.
Nevertheless, this should not be the primary reason we do what we do.
As members of the fire service, we should never seek hero status or self-glorification for actions taken in the performance of our duties. Knowing we gave our best efforts to save lives and protect people from harm should be sufficient gratification.
Whether the event was captured on camera or made the news should not be of any concern.
If there is any hero status deserved, it is for the profession as a whole and not any one individual.