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3 Rescuers of Woman Trapped Under Car to Be Honored

April 05, 2002|GARIOT LOUIMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lester Morales ignored the hot metal of the car's chassis cutting into his hands as he strained to help the screaming young woman.

She was trapped. A two-car accident had wiped out her bus stop and left her pinned on the sidewalk by one of the vehicles. The motor hummed as the front end of the 2,700-pound car pressed down on her. The driver, still inside, also cried for help, complaining that she was pregnant and that her back hurt.

Morales' colleague, Enrique Hurtado, tried desperately to find a way to lift the car. The two gang intervention workers, assisted by others in the growing crowd, managed to get the trapped woman away from the wreckage after a few frantic minutes.

Although she had serious injuries, including a broken pelvis, Dawn Gant survived.

"I don't know how long I was going to be under the car if they didn't help me," the 26-year-old vocational/technical school student said recently from her Los Angeles home, where she is recuperating. Gant, who attends East Los Angeles Skills Center, hopes to continue studying construction after she recovers.

City officials who plan to honor the men during the City Council meeting today say that Morales and Hurtado, along with another gang intervention worker, Danny Diaz, may have saved Gant's life. If she had not been freed from under the car before emergency workers arrived, the officials say, she could have suffered more severe injuries.

"She could have been burned really badly if she stayed there much longer," said Los Angeles Police Officer Thomas Fox, who responded to the accident at Soto and Multnomah streets on Feb. 15. "Or she could have suffocated there."

Morales, Hurtado and Diaz say that they are proud of what they did but that they feel somewhat uncomfortable when people refer to them as heroes. Their jobs involve trying to help save people, albeit from the dangers of gangs. Each of them says that all he wanted to do was everything possible to help Gant--a stranger--make it out of the accident alive.

They describe their actions that day as a combination of adrenaline and reflexes generated by a scary experience.

Around 2 p.m., Morales, Hurtado and Diaz, who work for Public Health Foundation, a nonprofit group that operates a city-sponsored gang intervention program, were in Hurtado's truck headed back to their office in Boyle Heights after a meeting in El Sereno. Morales was sitting in the front passenger seat and Diaz was in the back as they traveled south on Soto Street.

Suddenly, they saw a blue Ford Mustang crash into the back of a gold Honda Accord. After the impact, the Mustang continued south on Soto, while the Honda was forced off the road.

"I saw the car was out of control and it went onto the sidewalk," Hurtado recalled. "The lady saw it coming at her but she couldn't get away from it."

Hurtado stopped at a red light, put his truck in park, and dashed down the street to where Gant lay pinned to the pavement. Morales ran to the scene too. Meanwhile, Diaz jumped into the driver's seat, followed the Mustang for several blocks, and called 911, before the motorist decided to return to the scene.

At Soto and Multnomah, Morales and Hurtado were trying to lift the car off Gant. Morales, a powerfully built 23-year-old, tried to reassure Gant that she would be OK.

"I asked her what her name was, but she was just screaming and crying," said Morales, who was at the front end of the car. "She kept telling us to help her."

The car was heavy, he remembered. They would not be able to hold it up much longer.

Hurtado, 32 and husky, yelled at the bystanders to help. Several other men helped lift the car a bit higher. A few others pulled Gant from underneath the car.

When they let the Accord drop to the pavement, it scraped Hurtado's left thigh, leaving a nasty bruise. Morales looked down at his hands and saw blood trickling from the lacerations.

A bit later an emergency response team and Los Angeles police officers arrived at the scene. No citations were issued and the pregnant driver did not suffer any serious injuries, police said.

Hurtado, director of the Aztec Fire Fuels Crew operated by the foundation, submitted an incident report to city officials when he returned to his office.

Councilman Nick Pacheco, whose district includes Boyle Heights, drafted a motion for the council to honor the men at today's meeting.

Morales said it took a while for him to digest the afternoon's events.

Later that day, while sitting in a waiting room at the medical center, where he would receive 13 stitches on his hands, he thought about what he and the others had done. "It hit me. We saved this lady's life."

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