Mailman Alejandro S. Verdejo was making his rounds one sunny day in Redlands when he saw a car swerving wildly down the street "with a little boy standing on the front seat bawling his head off."
Running behind the car was a woman screaming, "Somebody please help me!" recalled Verdejo, 27, one of 17 Americans and Canadians honored Thursday by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for risking their lives attempting to save others.
"I dropped my satchel, ran as fast as I could, opened the car door, jumped inside, turned the wheel hard to the right and slammed on the brakes," said Verdejo of the incident that occurred Dec. 19, 1985. "We stopped 25 feet away from a busy four-way intersection."
Verdejo was so shaken by the event that he could "scarcely speak two words that made sense" to the sobbing, thankful mother of 2-year-old Mathew E. Nunes.
What did this local hero do next?
"I started walking," Verdejo said, "delivering mail."
Another Southern California award recipient was Timothy E. Kusler, 55, a retired hospital director from Diamond Bar. Kusler helped pull a 57-year-old man from a burning motor home on Interstate 10 in Fontana--moments before it exploded in flames.
Kusler said he was driving to San Bernardino around noon on Oct. 28, 1986, when he saw the motor home overturned in the middle of the freeway. A fire was burning from the vehicle's gas tank.
Kusler followed another rescuer, Stephen Esparza, 39, of Corona, through the motor home's windshield and into the dark and smoky interior. "He took the man's feet, I took his shoulders and we tried to pull him out of the windshield . . . (but) his body wouldn't budge," Kusler recalled.
He and Esparza were faced with a difficult decision. "I asked myself, 'How long am I willing to stay in here?' "
"We made another glorified effort to free that man," he said. "Then we noticed he was still attached to his seat belt. . . . After the seat belt was freed he felt like he didn't weigh anything."
Kusler and Esparza quickly moved the man away from the vehicle. Then, as they were about 50 yards away, "There were two explosions and balls of fire," he said.
It wasn't until later that Kusler learned that the victim, James B. Ezell, 58, of Prescott, Ariz., a retired Los Angeles police officer, stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 215 pounds and has been partially paralyzed since 1976.
Nor did they know at the time that Ezell had just filled his tank with 40 gallons of gasoline.
"It seems poetic justice that I helped save a police officer who had probably saved many lives himself," Kusler said. "But the impact didn't reach me until I read in the newspaper that his wife was happy to have him home alive."
For their bravery, Verdejo, Kusler, Esparza and the other 14 heroes honored will receive a medal and $2,500 cash from the fund, which has cited 7,162 people since it was founded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1904.