So much for cynicism…

I have to admit, I’ve always been a cynic when it comes to my fellow freeway motorists, the great majority of whom I’ve viewed as cell phone-obsessed, latte-sipping drones who wouldn’t lift a finger to help another human being no matter how dire the circumstances.

Two weeks ago, a half-dozen motorists on Interstate 80 between Vacaville and Fairfield changed my mind when they stopped to rescue an elderly man from the burning wreckage of his sport utility vehicle after it plunged off the freeway.

This was no simple matter of pulling onto the road shoulder and phoning for a tow truck or helping someone get out from behind an air bag.

The SUV in question had completely left the freeway, crossed an adjacent rural road and plunged down a steep embankment, landing, crushed, about 150 yards from where it left the pavement. The burning vehicle wasn’t even visible from the freeway.

One woman, Geraldine Livesay of Vacaville, spotted the wreckage and stopped to frantically flag down as many passing motorists as she could.

Five to six passers-by eventually stopped and made their way down the cold, muddy embankment to the wreckage, which had begun to smolder while its driver remained strapped inside, apparently unconscious.

Witnesses said several people tried to knock down the flames with fire extinguishers they’d brought from their cars, but the fire kept flaring up and threatened to engulf the SUV and its elderly occupant.

With little regard for their own safety, the Good Samaritans stayed with the unconscious stranger and eventually opted to cut his seat belt and pull him from the burning wreckage.

They succeeded. The driver lived, was airlifted to a Sacramento medical center for care and was able to return home last week.

Not all of the rescuers were identified. A partial list of those who stopped includes Livesay, Miguel Mendonca of Granite Bay, Pedro Marin of Napa, Maria Ruff of Vacaville and Jerrod McIlvain of San Jose.

“Hero” is always a tough term to define adequately, but one of my personal favorites has to do with someone who will unselfishly risk his or her own safety and comfort to go to the aid of another with no expectation of recognition or remuneration for their actions.

The people who rushed down that embankment to the aid of a stranger certainly fit the definition.

Experts will tell you that what those passers-by did was also foolhardy. From a purely intellectual standpoint, I’d have to agree.

Anytime you’re dealing with a burning vehicle, things can go sideways in a hurry. The rescuers didn’t know how much fuel the SUV was carrying or if the driver had explosives or dangerous chemicals on board. They didn’t have any specialized protective clothing, tools or – with the exception of one cigar-chomping, off-duty paramedic – emergency rescue training.

What they had was heart and courage and the desire to reach out to another human being in trouble. Sometimes, even when the odds are against you, that’s enough…

Originally published January 16, 2005