Hero saves man from burning car

Man who sprang into action after a 2 a.m. crash

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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James Bray was in the right place at the right time early Saturday morning to pull a man out of a burning car … until things started to go wrong.

As flames crept up the trapped driver’s legs, Bray said, “I thought, ‘Am I going to watch this man die?’”

But Bray kept going, slicing through the driver’s seat belt with a knife he keeps on a key chain. And then — with the help of two passengers who’d escaped from the crashed vehicle — Bray was able to pull the injured man through the car window.

Capt. Bob Carroll, commander of the first Vancouver Fire Department unit to arrive at about 2 a.m. Saturday, said he will recommend Bray for a lifesaving award.

“He saved the driver from burning up,” Carroll said in a report to department officials.

The driver was Brian J. Hall, 22, Vancouver police said in a news release Saturday. Hall was transported to the Legacy Health System burn center in Portland with what were described as serious injuries. He was a patient there Saturday evening; his condition was unavailable.

According to a police report, Hall’s BMW was traveling at a high speed when it hit the utility pole at the intersection of McLoughlin and Grand boulevards. The Vancouver Police Department’s traffic unit is investigating the accident. It is unknown if alcohol or drugs were a factor.

While Bray confronted some problems in his rescue effort, “You’d be surprised what went right,” he said Saturday afternoon.

Bray said he’s usually an early-to-bed kind of guy, but he had stayed up late playing computer games. Although he was in bed, Bray was still awake when he heard the BMW hit the metal pole.

“I heard a really deep pop,” Bray said. “I didn’t know what it was.”

So he got up and looked out his living room window.

“I could see the car wrapped around the light pole,” Bray said barely 12 hours after the accident. “There was a little bit of fire under the engine. I told my wife to call 911, and I put on my shoes and pants.” Bray grabbed a short-sleeved T-shirt and pulled it on as he ran across the street.

Bray said he saw one occupant get out of the back seat, and another escape through the front passenger-side door. The windows were tinted and the car was filling with smoke, so he didn’t know if there was another occupant.

Where’s the driver?

When Bray asked if the driver was still inside, the two men were pretty much incoherent, Bray said. Maybe it was the driver who’d escaped through the right-side door, he thought. No, Bray realized. If somebody had been in the back seat, that meant two people had been up front: The driver was still inside.

“I always carry a small flashlight and I pulled it out of my pocket and hit the glass as hard as I could,” Bray said. Nothing happened.

“I flipped it around and reversed my grip and hit it as hard as I could” with the butt end of the flashlight, he said. The glass collapsed, and he saw the driver.

“The driver was groaning,” Bray said. “His legs were on fire, basically. I told my wife to get the fire extinguisher. I could see the door was unlocked, so I tried to open the door. It was stuck.”

Bray and the other men tried to muscle the door open with a “1-2-3-PULL!” The door wouldn’t budge.

Then Bray, 26, handed his folding knife to one of the passengers and told him to cut the driver’s seat belt while Mindy Bray handed her husband the fire extinguisher. He blasted the flames under the steering wheel; they flared up again. Bray gave them another blast with the extinguisher; the flames flared back to life.

Even though the passenger had used Bray’s knife on the seat belt, they still couldn’t pull the driver out of his seat.

“The guy said he’d cut the belt, and we just had to pull,” Bray said.

So they pulled, but they couldn’t budge the driver.

That’s when Bray realized: “The guy had cut the shoulder belt, not the lap belt. That’s what was holding him in.”

Bray asked for his knife back; the other guy didn’t have it.

Backup blade

“I have a little Leatherman tool on my key chain with a 2-inch blade,” Bray said. And that was something else that worked out surprisingly well, he said.

Even though it was a much smaller than his other knife, “It was a new Leatherman. I hadn’t used it yet,” Bray said. “I use my other knife every day, and the Leatherman was sharper.”

As the rescue effort cleared another hurdle, Bray was still wondering, “Am I going to be able to get him out, or is he going to die in front of me?”

Finally, the three men pulled the driver through the window.

“His shoes had melted. His pants were on fire, but that went away pretty quickly,” Bray said.

Meanwhile, “There was a little explosion” as the fire continued to consume the car.

It took only three minutes for firefighters to arrive, but “The car was fully involved when the first engine got there,” said Capt. David James, fire department spokesman. The driver “would not have survived if he had not been pulled out.”

While waiting for the firefighters to arrive, Bray tried to uncoil the hose in his yard so he could spray down the site. Bray couldn’t work the kinks out of the hose. It turned out the water was frozen.

That’s how cold it was at 2 a.m. Saturday, and Bray was wearing just a T-shirt and pants.

Bray said the cold didn’t really bother him.

“I was only out there for three minutes.”

Still, James noted, “That was such an exceptional thing to do in the middle of the night.”

Through all that happened, the fire department spokesman said, “Mr. Bray was able to problem-solve.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; tom.vogt@columbian.com.