'It was like jumping into a fireplace': How a CO and former EMT saved a driver engulfed in flames
Daniel O'Beirne and Jordan Reed, two strangers with fire and EMS backgrounds, worked together to save a driver whose semi-truck struck a pole and burst into flames
For many, a commute to work is largely uneventful. A typical morning rush-hour traffic drive is often filled with a barrage of stop-and-go, traffic jams and impatient drivers.
Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, however, can sometimes yield much different results.
The turnpike, which is the most heavily traveled toll road in the nation, is intense. Its 148-mile stretch of highway has been dubbed as "The Monster Road," with as many as 14 lanes in some areas. It is frequently the scene of horrific crashes and fatal pileups.
This all-too-common occurrence is second nature to Daniel O'Beirne, who finds himself stopping to assist at a crash scene at least once a week while driving to work on the turnpike.
Most of the time, the accidents are minor – just fender benders. But, during a routine drive to work on October 5, 2020, one crash scene was much more severe.
Instinct kicked in
O'Beirne was on his way to work as a corrections officer at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, New Jersey, when he noticed a semi-truck about 10 cars ahead of him had been involved in an accident.
"The truck ended up going into the barrier, and then struck a pole," said O'Beirne, who also serves as a fire lieutenant and EMT with the Wood-Ridge Fire Department.
There was an immediate fireball, triggering drivers to slam on their brakes to avoid colliding with the now fully engulfed semi-truck.
Be advised there is currently a tractor trailer fire on the NJ Turnpike in Linden. We have Engines 1, 2, 3, and 4, the water tender, EMS 1 and shift Deputy on scene. Early reports there is one patient with significant burns. New Jersey State Police NorthStar Medevac Helicopter is landing at Memorial Field and will transport patient to Robert Wood Johnson trauma center . We have Mutual Aid Engines from Rahway and Roselle covering the city with Linden Ladder 1.Posted by Linden Fire Department on Monday, October 5, 2020
Rather than swerving away from the intense scene, instinct kicked in and O'Beirne pulled over, got out of his car and ran over to help the truck driver. The driver was completely engulfed in flames; he was standing on the running boards of his truck when O'Beirne ran up to help.
"I got him onto the ground and ripped his sweater off him because the flames were going too close to his face," O'Beirne said. "I really wasn't thinking. I was just doing. My main concern was to just get the fire out."
O'Beirne was able to pull the driver away from the truck and used his own shirt and pants to extinguish the flames.
"I wasn't paying attention to pretty much anything other than helping the driver," O'Beirne said.
About 30 seconds later, Jordan Reed, another nearby driver and good Samaritan, came to assist O'Beirne.
"Daniel used his clothes to try to put the fire out, but those lit on fire immediately," recalled Reed, an emergency medicine physician assistant with almost a decade of EMT experience. "I had this blanket on the back seat of my car and I just ran around the back, grabbed it and ran up to the scene."
Without thinking twice about it, Reed jumped on top of the driver with the blanket. "It was like jumping into a fireplace," he said.
Reed was able to put out most of the fire that had engulfed the driver.
"This other truck driver stopped and gave Daniel a fire extinguisher to use. He used that to put out the last bit that I hadn't been able to smother yet," Reed explained.
It was then that Reed asked the driver if he could breathe. "It was the longest three seconds because he didn't move at all. He was just lying there perfectly flat."
The driver finally answered, "Yes."
"And, I was like, 'OK, look, we've got to get up. We've got to get away from this thing.' We were probably 15 feet away from this truck that's fully engulfed in flames."
O'Beirne and Reed were able to get the driver up and walk him away from the truck.
The driver, whose clothes had been completely burned off, had suffered severe burns and was in shock. "I kept having to hold his hand because he was trying to pull off sloughing skin. I didn't want him to make things worse," Reed said.
The driver, Reed recalled, kept screaming, "Where's medical? Where's medical?"
Transporting the driver to a hospital
O'Beirne and Reed started collecting water bottles to try to cool the driver down.
"You could tell that people were in shock; they just didn't know what to do," O'Beirne said. "They were trying. They were getting us different stuff – even if it was little, like a floorboard water bottle that rolls around and annoys you with just a sip left in it. It was nice to see that – people trying to do whatever they could to help."
Having had experience in the trauma center, Reed noticed the driver had extensive burns to his face and lips.
"Being in an explosive fire like that, you get concerned about a concussive injury," he said. "Not only intracranial concussive injury, but concussive injury with forced flame or even heat into the airways that must be addressed quickly."
When crews arrived on scene, police asked Reed if they should call for a medical helicopter. "I said, 'Absolutely.'"
O'Beirne went back to move his car to make way for the fire department, which is when he started to feel the minor burns on his arms and legs.
"I really don't know how I didn't get burned at all," Reed said.
Once EMS arrived, Reed helped crews get the stretcher out of the back of the ambulance.
"Interestingly, it was one of the old-school, manual stretchers, which is funny, because that's what I was trained on," he said. "And I think they were a little taken aback when I was like, 'I can help you put the stretcher down. Let's load him up on it. I know what I'm doing.'"
Reed worked with one of the EMTs to load the driver into the back and crews pulled off at the next exit to meet the medical helicopter at an empty field.
"They had done a rapid sequence intubation in the field, which made a lot of sense because he had a high likelihood of airway burns," Reed said.
By the time O'Beirne was able to get back on scene, EMS had already transported the driver.
'We did what we could'
"My adrenaline was going through the roof," O'Beirne said. "I was just zoned in on one thing, and then Jordan was zoned in on the medical side of it."
O'Beirne, whose shift started at 1:30 p.m., was late to work. When he arrived, his colleagues had the news on in the breakroom.
"They just told me to go home," he said. " I was covered in powder from the fire extinguisher. I was covered in some burns. I was just a mess. My shirt had burn holes in them; I was wearing a shirt that wasn't even my size."
When O'Beirne got home, that's when it all hit him. "That's somebody's friend, brother, son, you know?"
However, O'Beirne said he has no regrets about how he and Reed handled themselves on scene.
"Everything we did was done flawlessly, as far as what we had. I don't wish for that to happen to anybody, but what we had that day, as far as two strangers doing what we had to do to get the job done, was something that definitely sticks out in my mind. I'd never met Jordan; he didn't have to trust me for anything."
Reed, who was drained after the adrenaline wore off, said he had similar sentiments when he was able to pull off the highway and process the incident. But one thing in specific had frustrated him.
Typically, Reed carries gloves and medical supplies with him in his car. But, on that day, he was driving his new truck and hadn't put a box of supplies in the back yet.
"I was so frustrated. Shortly after getting home, I ended up buying a cargo box for the truck for things that I wished I'd had access to that day," he said.
O'Beirne followed suit. "I got fire extinguishers and burn blankets. I call it the Turnpike Box now."
O'Beirne and Reed have been unable to find out any further information regarding the driver's current condition, but they both hope for the best.
"I know what Jordan and I did that day, that it was the best that it was going to get in the situation," O'Beirne said. "I hope he survives and is able to walk out of the hospital. We were his best shot at getting through it. For a couple of strangers, you would think Jordan and I were partners for 20 years."
For a while, O'Beirne said the incident weighed heavy on his mind. "When I did find the time to sleep, it wasn't really happening; it was all just running through my mind. I came to terms with the fact that we did what we could."