Firefighters pulled a Kelso man from a burning SUV Tuesday night, mere minutes before the passenger compartment caught on fire, officials said.
The Clark County Fire & Rescue crew attributed its swift rescue to teamwork and serendipity.
Around 9 p.m., Robert Sieglitz, 41, was southbound on Interstate 5 about two miles north of Woodland when he lost control of his Ford Explorer and left the roadway toward the median.
He tried to correct but drove down an embankment about 80 to 100 feet into a bunch of bushes in the wide, grassy median, where the Explorer caught on fire.
At first, Washington State Patrol troopers were unable to find the crash because the vehicle was reported as leaving the roadway from the northbound freeway. Northbound troopers couldn't get to the crash. Train tracks and the large median separate the north and southbound lanes on that stretch of the freeway.
A crew of firefighters from Clark County Fire & Rescue's Woodland station were heading to the crash in a fire engine on I-5 south when they spotted flames just north of Exit 22. Though they couldn't tell what was burning, the four firefighters figured that on a cold, rainy night, it had to be a vehicle. They slowly backed up the engine about 200 feet to get over to the median.
Capt. Todd Kays called for an ambulance and requested Life Flight be put on standby, but the helicopters couldn't fly due to poor weather.
Two interns William Murray, 19, and Tessa Lee, 25, were already wearing full firefighter gear and strapped on gas masks. They pulled a hose line down the hill to the car, where Lee started to fight the fire. Murray stomped and pulled away tall bushes surrounding the SUV. When he opened the passenger side door -- the driver's side was inaccessible -- he didn't find anyone. He reached farther and felt a person on the driver's side. Sieglitz was not buckled in, so Murray quickly pulled him out of the vehicle.
Within two minutes, flames spread to the passenger compartment, Kays said.
"A lot of times people don't survive accidents like that," he said.
When he saw Murray and firefighter Kevin Saari helping carry the man away from the burning vehicle, he assumed it was a body recovery.
Sieglitz, however, was virtually unscathed and complained only of minor back pain.
"I was proud" of the crew, Kays said.
This was just their second shift working together since the merger of Clark County Fire & Rescue and the Woodland Fire Department.
Kays wonders what could have happened if they arrived just two minutes later.
Sieglitz was strapped to a backboard and carried up the embankment, with assistance from Cowlitz County Fire District 1 personnel, while the vehicle fire was doused. He was transported by ambulance to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center as a precaution and released.
"We train all the time. And this is one of those incidences where I'm thankful for every bit of training I've had," Murray said.
He's been an intern with the department for about five months and studies fire science at Lower Columbia College in Longview.
"Everybody did great," Murray said. "It was a team effort."