SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — Rick Wetzel says he is no hero, just a guy who happened to be “in the right place at the right time.”
Edward “Phil” Blomquist begs to differ.
“That was probably the best day of my life,” said Blomquist, 79, standing with Wetzel in a cul-de-sac off Hayden Bridge Road in Springfield, where Wetzel was working Wednesday on a fencing project.
“Oh man, that makes me feel so good,” said Wetzel, 52, throwing his arms around Blomquist.
“If it weren’t for you, it would have been the worst day of my life,” Blomquist said. “And probably the last. It was divine providence.”
How the day he almost died near Cottage Grove 16 months ago turned into the “best day” of Blomquist’s life is a multilayered story involving suicide, alcohol abuse and recovery, and an unlikely and inspiring friendship.
Wetzel, of Dexter, pulled Blomquist from his burning minivan on Nov. 14, 2014, after an intoxicated Blomquist crashed into a power pole on Sears Road just outside Cottage Grove.
On Wednesday, Wetzel was one of 24 Americans and Canadians recognized for their acts of “civilian heroism” between 2013 and 2015 by the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. The honor comes with a Carnegie Medal and $5,000.
Besides Wetzel, Wednesday’s other recipients include a Lacey, Wash., high school teacher who helped subdue a student who brought a loaded revolver to school; an Iowa man who saved another county employee from a gunman who fired shots before killing himself; and a Pennsylvania man who subdued a mentally ill man who fatally shot his caseworker and wounded a psychiatrist at a hospital.
Three of the recipients died during their acts of heroism — all trying to save relatives or neighbors from burning homes.
The Carnegie Medal, named for industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and bestowed since 1904, is given “to those who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”
Wetzel had known for a couple of months, since the commission had notified him, that he would be a recipient — but he didn’t know until Wednesday who had nominated him.
And Blomquist, of Cottage Grove, didn’t know, until a reporter contacted him by phone on Wednesday, that Wetzel had made the list.
“It did go through?” Blomquist said.
Yes, it was Blomquist himself, and his wife, Carole, who made the nomination.
“If anybody deserves it, it’s him,” said Blomquist, who retired in the late 1990s from Weyerhaeuser after 34 years.
Hearing that a Register-Guard reporter and photographer were headed to meet Wetzel in Springfield, Blomquist hopped in his car Wednesday afternoon and drove up Interstate 5 to surprise Wetzel and shake his hand once again.
Wetzel, a lean man with a bushy red and gray mustache and goatee who lives with his wife, Lin Hamlin, on a houseboat in Dexter, was taken aback when Blomquist arrived unexpectedly with his service dog, a toy poodle named Emma, who Wetzel also helped save that day in 2014.
Wetzel and another rescuer, Josh Stevens of Creswell, who also came upon the fiery scene, were recognized for their heroics by South Lane County Fire and Rescue in December 2014, a month after the crash. They were reunited with Blomquist that day, but Wetzel had not seen Blomquist since, until Wednesday.
“It was a miracle,” Blomquist told Wetzel, who plans to spend his $5,000 reward on “much-needed” repairs to his houseboat. “There were several miracles that day. First of all, Rick wouldn’t have been there if … ”
“If my sense of direction wasn’t so bad?” Wetzel said, as the two broke into laughter.
Wetzel, who does handyman jobs around Lane County, was on his way to Cottage Grove about 2:30 p.m. that day to pick up some roofing material when he took a wrong turn.
Within a few minutes, he came across Blomquist’s burning minivan in a ditch near the intersection of Sears and Molitor Ranch roads, slammed on his brakes and skidded to a halt.
Blomquist’s 2005 Chrysler minivan was smoking, starting to burn and hot to the touch, Wetzel recalled. He was worried it would explode.
“He was slumped over the steering wheel,” Wetzel said.
“I couldn’t get out,” Blomquist recalled.
“We struggled with the (seat)belt for a while,” Wetzel said.
Blomquist was conscious, but he had been drinking brandy that day and also hit his head during the impact.
Wetzel was finally able to free Blomquist and drag him to safety, shielding the two of them from the flames with his wool coat as Stevens and another man arrived to help.
Then the explosions began.
“He had ammunition in his car, and it was going off,” Wetzel told The Register-Guard the day of the crash. “I kept ducking — we had no idea where the rounds were going.”
But Blomquist is not a gun lover. He’s a golfer. Those were exploding golf balls in a bag in his van that day.
“When they get hot, they explode!” said Blomquist, who added on Wednesday that he hasn’t touched a drop of liquor since the day of the crash.
Blomquist has no memory of the crash or the aftermath. The Lane County Sheriff’s Office cited Blomquist, who now walks with a cane, for drunken driving after he was taken to the hospital with a shattered right kneecap and damaged vertebra in his lower back.
“That’s the first time I ever went in front of a judge,” Blomquist said of the citation.
He was ordered by the court to get treatment, and received counseling at Emergence Addiction and Mental Health Services in Cottage Grove.
“And I have no desire at all to drink,” Blomquist said. “That part of my life is over.”
The Blomquists’ middle son, Michael, also of Cottage Grove, committed suicide on Jan. 29, 2013, Phil Blomquist said.
To deal with the pain, he started drinking brandy, a lot of it, he said. The problem grew so bad he was hiding his “stash” in the garage from his wife.
But all the troubles and all the pain did not stop Blomquist and his wife — who has battled lymphoma in the past decade — from nominating Wetzel for the Carnegie Medal.
“I’ll split the winnings with you,” Blomquist joked with Wetzel, as the two broke into more laughter.