ST. GEORGE — Saying he’d never “been brave enough to do anything like this ever in my life,” Jacob Hughes talked to St. George News about pulling a man from a burning car Sunday night just minutes before flames consumed and destroyed the vehicle.
Emergency responders said Hughes’ quick thinking likely saved the man’s life, though he said he only followed his instincts in the moment.
Hughes, 28, of St. George, was on his way to work at the St. George Walmart for the night shift Sunday at about 10 p.m. when he noticed some orange light flickering from within a Ford Mustang in the parking lot of the nearby Wingate Hotel. The car was starting to catch fire from the inside.
Read more: Male injured after fire engulfs parked car
Hughes parked his car and considered calling 911, but decided to check first if anyone was in the burning car. He wasn’t able to see into it because of the flames and smoke until he made it to the driver’s side, where he was able to clearly see a man in the driver’s seat through the slightly-open window.
That was when he said his “panicked” instincts kicked in.
Into the frying pan
Hughes sprung into action as he started looking for a way to remove the man from the car.
“I saw the guy passed out in the car and a fire straight up in his lap as well as riding up the steering wheel column,” Hughes said.
In a “frenzy,” Hughes said he first tried opening the doors, which he discovered were locked. He wasn’t able to smash the windows of the Mustang with his fists. He unsuccessfully tried to reach his hand into the gap in the top of the window that was open to reach the lock. Nothing was working and the fire was quickly growing and spreading over the man.
“It seemed my banging on the windows roused him a little bit, because he was able to barely move his arm up to the switch to roll the window all the way down for me,” Hughes said. “I was then able to reach in and grab the door handle to open the door.”
The man was also wearing his seatbelt and the buckle was out of reach and on fire. Hughes had a boxcutter on him because his job at Walmart involved opening boxes in the store’s frozen food and dairy departments. He was able to cut the top section and the bottom section of the seatbelt before quickly pulling the man to safety.
The man’s clothes, however, were still in flames. Hughes started putting the fire out on the man by beating out the flames with his hands and jacket while yelling at a woman nearby to call 911.
“I think when I opened the door, it fueled the fire a lot more, so it went up pretty quick after I pulled him out. It wasn’t long after I got the fire out on him when I had to drag him another 10 feet away from the car because it was getting too hot.”
In the few moments they were waiting for the ambulance, Hughes said he asked the man if he was OK. The man gently and painfully shook his head. It was the only response Hughes ever got from him, which he said was “surreal.”
See video of flames engulfing the Ford Mustang at the top of this post. Video courtesy of Chad Tipton
And out of the fire
A St. George Police officer arrived at the scene a short time later, and the St. George Fire Department arrived to squelch the flames as the man was whisked away in a Gold Cross ambulance.
The current condition of the man is not known to emergency responders at this time, but St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker said the man, who had suffered several burns across his body, had been taken by an Intermountain Life Flight helicopter to University Medical Center of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas for further treatment.
The identity of the injured man, who Hughes said appeared to be in his 50s, has not been released.
St. George Police officer Lona Trombley said Wednesday that the cause of the fire is still under investigation. The likely reason the man was not consumed by the fire was because Hughes was able to “remove the occupant from the vehicle as the fire continued to grow.”
The man is expected to survive and is being treated for his burns, she said.
“If nobody was around, or even if people were kind of around, they would have had to see the fire because he wasn’t able to call for help or anything,” Hughes said.
Hughes wasn’t seriously injured from the ordeal except some blisters on his hands from patting the flames down on the man and sore wrists from banging on the vehicle’s windows.
After the incident, Hughes went to work; he was 30 minutes late for his shift. After telling his manager what had just happened outside, Hughes said he was able to dutifully finish the rest of his graveyard shift.
Hughes also said he didn’t get a chance to thank the woman who called 911. There were some other people at the scene watching the fire, but Hughes said they didn’t offer any help or call 911. The woman’s quick response by calling 911 is another reason the man survived, he said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been brave enough to do anything like this ever in my life,” Hughes said. “But getting up to that car and seeing the guy on fire — apparently something kicked in my head where I just dropped everything I had and tried my best to do anything I could to save him.”
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