In retrospect, Bob Robeck said the reason he sprinted toward the burning car and tirelessly worked to extricate the unconscious female driver was a selfish one.
“I did not want to watch somebody die today,” he said.
Robeck, 44, of Yacolt, was on his way to a construction job in Ione, Ore., on Monday about 10:30 a.m. driving east on Interstate 84 when he saw a “glint” in the corner of his eye. It looked like a tree had fallen.
It took him a half-second to realize that a 2010 Toyota Camry that had been traveling a few cars ahead of him had gone off the road, hit a rock mound and traveled up and down an embankment. The vehicle rolled several times before coming to rest on its top on the highway’s shoulder.
Not giving it a second thought, Robeck pulled off to the side of the road, and ran toward the vehicle
“It was almost immediately on fire, with flames licking out from the roof,” he said.
He hoped the car had fallen off of a tow truck and no one was inside. A peek in the backseat showed nobody, but he soon saw the hair of a woman in the driver’s seat.
“Ma’am … ma’am,” he yelled. No response.
Robeck kicked in the backseat window, and crawled partly into the car. He cut off her seat belt, but wasn’t able to get the woman out with the seat in his way. Police later identified the woman as Ketsy Roeder, 60, of Kennewick.
“The flames are getting bigger and bigger and I’m just thinking, ‘oh Lord.’ It was so surreal,” he said. Despite the increased danger, Robeck kept on.
With the help of about five other people who had stopped, Robeck pushed the car onto its side. The group rallied and used a baseball bat to break through the sunroof. Then, the effort began to get Roeder out through the sunroof.
“Ma’am … ma’am” Robeck shouted. Still no answer.
Roeder eventually snapped awake, but wasn’t responding to anything. With one hand trapped, she wasn’t able to help her rescuers much either. Robeck said he believes she weighs between 300 and 350 pounds.
“I was waiting for my ‘mommy’ strength to kick in and it never did,” Robeck said, who is 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 200 pounds. Two nurses who had stopped to help told him to be careful of the woman’s neck as they watched Robeck and others pulling at the woman.
“I’m pulling and I think, ‘I don’t care about her neck, this thing is on fire,’ ” he said. “We grabbed her by her hands and pulled like crazy.”
Finally, Robeck got Roeder’s arm free and with help from one of the nurses, was able to pull Roeder through the sunroof. The group dragged her away from the car.
“I’m not saying it was a last-minute boom, action-movie type thing, but her car became engulfed very quickly after we got her out,” he said.
Soon after, police and fire personnel arrived.
“What they did is admirable,” Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings said. “Fortunately they all were safe and able to step away from that without something happening to them. We really appreciate what they did out there.”
Roeder was transported to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, where she was listed in fair condition Monday afternoon. Oregon State Police are investigating the cause of the crash.
Robeck is glad to hear that Roeder is doing OK. He is actually glad about all the decisions he made Monday morning: a bad sunburn from working on a roof on Saturday almost led him to skip work. He had also stopped for coffee on the drive to Ione and again to pick up materials for the job along the way before happening upon the crash.
“The weird thing about whole experience is, if one thing would have been different … I get shivers,” he said. “I’m just really am glad I was there.”