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CHP Officer Fights Back Flames, Saves Unconscious Crash Victims

May 31, 1990|MATT LAIT and SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

COSTA MESA — A California Highway Patrol officer battled smoke, flames, locked doors and rush-hour traffic Wednesday to save two unconscious people from a burning car on the Costa Mesa Freeway, authorities said.

In the process, Officer Keith Thornhill, 25, sliced his forearm, suffered smoke inhalation and burned his hands as he patted the flames from the head and back of one of the burning victims.

"It's kind of what the job is all about," said Thornhill as he lay on a gurney in the emergency room at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. "I don't think anybody's trained for it, you just jump in with both feet and do it."

The ordeal began about 5:15 p.m. when Thornhill, driving an unmarked patrol car, attempted to save the life of a disoriented pedestrian who was wandering in the car-pool lane of the Costa Mesa Freeway just south of the MacArthur Boulevard off-ramp, CHP spokeswoman Linda Burrus said.

"She was holding a big 16 by 20 picture of Jesus in front of her," Thornhill said.

Thornhill slowed down and stopped his vehicle in the car-pool lane to prevent the woman from running into traffic. The driver of a green compact Isuzu slammed on the brakes behind the patrol car, and a gold Cadillac rear-ended the Isuzu, Thornhill said.

The Isuzu spun in a circle and caught on fire.

"I actually saw the gas pour out and the car burst into flames," Thornhill said.

Thornhill ran to the Isuzu and pulled out the occupants, both of whom were unconscious and strapped into their seats. The impact of the collision broke both seats, forcing the two victims into a horizontal position, he said.

The doors were locked, so Thornhill used his metal baton to break the driver's side window. At that point, the driver, David Fire, 25, of Yorba Linda, regained consciousness.

"He started screaming and kicking and flailing around because he was lying practically in the back seat and it was on fire," Thornhill said.

Fire "started running in circles and screaming" after Thornhill pulled him to safety, he said.

Smoke had filled the Isuzu when Thornhill went back to rescue the passenger, Jason Tremball, 20, of Fullerton.

Thornhill leaned in the driver's side and tried to unbuckle Tremball's seat belt, but as he did the driver's seat caught fire. "So I ran around the other side and smashed out the (front passenger) window. Flames came out like a wall," said Thornhill.

Thornhill then knocked out the rear passenger window, thinking he could drag Tremball out from the back seat.

"Then, the whole car went up, up to the dash, and the guy was lying there in the back. It was so gray and smoky and I couldn't see him," Thornhill said.

The car's headliner caught fire and dropped onto Tremball's head. "I could see his head on fire," the officer said.

Thornhill managed to get Tremball's seat belt off and dragged him from the car, which was engulfed in flames within moments.

"I smashed the flames on his shirt and his hair with my hands and dragged him about 50 feet from the flames," he said.

Tremball was taken to Western Medical Center and Fire to UCI Medical Center in Orange. Both were expected to survive. There was no immediate report as to their injuries.

A passing motorist had called 911 on his car phone before Thornhill returned to his patrol car to radio for help.

Witnesses called the CHP station in Santa Ana to report the officer's bravery. Despite the struggle to free the victims, Thornhill stressed that they would probably not have survived the crash had they not been wearing their seat belts.

The unidentified woman who was wandering on the freeway was taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange for psychiatric observation, CHP officials said.

The occupants of the Cadillac, Francisco Hernandez, 33, of Santa Ana and passenger Francisco Sandoval, 32, also of Santa Ana, received moderate injuries and were taken to UCI Medical Center, Burrus said. Another passenger, Ronald Cordrey, 19, of Costa Mesa was taken to Western Medical Center with minor injuries, she said.

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