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Bystanders help pull driver from burning vehicle rollover crash Thursday night

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. – Bystanders ran to the scene of a vehicle rollover crash that caught fire Thursday night on Highway 154 near Paradise Rd, before first responders arrived.

One of the bystanders at the scene, Chris Clarke from Santa Ynez, said he first saw the pick-up truck on its side just off the roadway, when he noticed a small fire under the hood.

"I knew that if anybody was still in there, it was only going to be a matter of maybe a couple of minutes before the car was engulfed," said Clarke. "So I pulled over as quickly as I could and ran over."

"I thought, I hope nobody's in there. And then I ran up and I saw through the windshield that the driver was still trapped in the driver's seat. And I knew that I had to get him out of there as quickly as I could, or at least, you know, I had to try to. I wasn't able to not."

The current status of the driver has not yet been provided, as of 3:30 p.m. Friday.

Clarke said that as soon as he walked up, he noticed the driver had a knife in his hand, trying to escape.

"He said, 'get me out of here,'" said Clarke.

"I tried pulling on him and he was stuck fast and I realized that the seatbelt was still on. So I reached up to his lap and somehow... I don't know how, it's like something was guided. My hand just reached the buckle and unclipped and felt the seatbelt ease off around him. But he was still trapped at his legs or feet."

"When I ran up to him, there was nobody else there," said Clarke. "But it seemed like very quickly other people started stopping.

Another bystander, Tim Thorpe, said he was on his way home from playing poker at the Chumash Casino Resort with his friend, Mike Ruiz, when he saw all the cars backed up on Highway 154.

"We just thought the hillside was on fire," said Thorpe. "As we went around, there was a big van stopped so I went around to go past it, we seen the car – the guy in the car. And we... we were in shock.”

The car fire spread to brush along the highway, burning about 50x 50 ft of land according to Santa Barbara County Fire spokesperson Scott Safechuck.

"The car was totally engulfed, and no one was around him because the fire was so intense, and... he was basically burning to death," said Thorpe.

"I pulled to the side, and I got out of the car and I just looked back and I went, I basically went blank. There was a woman screaming to the side ‘help him, help him,’ so next thing I know I’m running towards him, and as I get halfway there, he flips out of the car and he’s still on fire."

"And the car, the flames were like ten feet high. The truck was totally bursting and the tires were blowing up... I remember standing there, going 'if I go after this guy, I could get killed,' and then I don’t even remember anything. Alls I remember is grabbing him."

Thorpe said he pulled the driver about 15 feet away from the fire.

"I basically went blank. When I got close to him, he flipped out... and then he kinda wiggled away... to get away from (the car on fire), and I grabbed him. I’m grabbing him, I’m going 'he’s still on fire, what am I gonna do now, he’s still on fire,' and then three or four people put towels- uh, blankets on him... and put him out."

"That’s all I remember. I couldn’t even picture anybody’s face but his. I know there was a woman screaming, and that’s it," said Thorpe. "I kinda went blank. It’s a really weird feeling."

Safechuck said the driver was in critical condition with burn injuries at the scene, and was transported to Cottage Hospital. He also said at least one of the bystanders was transported for smoke inhalation.

"It was really amazing to see how many people stopped and got out and tried to do anything they could to help a number of other people," said Clarke.

"I think at least two others ended up having to go to the hospital themselves like I did," said Clarke. "I met one of the other gentlemen in the hospital on my way out afterwards, and it was really amazing to see so many people willing to put themselves in the way to try to to help somebody like that."

Chris Clarke, a Santa Ynez resident, looks down at his cast covering the burn injuries from the rescue.

Clarke has casts on his arms, he was interviewed before his follow-up medical visit on Friday afternoon.

Thorpe said he left the scene soon after pulling the driver away from the car fire. He said that he and his buddy were about halfway down the hill on Highway 154 when they passed by firetrucks.

"We drove down the hill, I said 'I gotta get my hands washed off.' I went into a restaurant and washed my hands off. And then it kinda hit me, I started shaking real bad. And then about 20 minutes later I was alright. But I’m old so I thought I was gonna have a heart attack."

Thorpe's friend, Mike Ruiz, took this photo of Thorpe before he washed his hands.

Antelope Valley resident Tim Thorpe shows his hands after helping a driver escape his burning car on Highway 154.

"It was so dark, I thought I burned my hands. But it was just blood and silt from grabbing him," said Thorpe.

Firefighters stopped forward progress of the flames as of 7:11 p.m., but Highway 154 remained closed in both directions until it reopened around 8:55 p.m., according to Safechuck and CHP.

Both Clarke and Thorpe asked the status of the driver, and hope he is doing okay.

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Lily Dallow

Lily Dallow is a digital journalist and assignment editor at News Channel 3-12. To learn more about Lily, click here.


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