The firefighters at Paso Robles’ Station No. 1 were just getting ready for bed Thursday when they got the call at 10 p.m. A car had caught fire when it collided with a power pole on the south end of town, and a 16-year-old boy was trapped inside.
It ended up being one of the most dangerous rescues of their careers.
“They could have died that night,” Paso Robles Emergency Services Chief Ken Johnson said. “They risked their lives to save that young man.”
Police suspect that the teen, whose name was not disclosed, was driving under the influence and speeding before he careened into two power poles at the intersection of South River and Charolais roads.
“It was bad,” firefighter Jason Cox said simply, back at the station Tuesday for another two-day shift.
He was one of the department's three first responders to arrive on scene at 10:05 p.m., along with firefighter-paramedic John Prickett and Fire Capt. Randy Harris.
Cox described the scene as a “trifecta” of worst-case scenarios: It was dark and hard to see, power lines were strewn all around and the car’s engine area was ablaze. And, everyone risked being electrocuted.
“We make calculated risks everyday,” Prickett said. “But this is one of those situations where we’re taught to stay away, stay away, stay away.”
But there was a life to save. And the men, upon the signal from their captain, agreed to go in after the teen caught inside the burning car.
In total, eight firefighters aided the rescue — seven men on two fire engines along with Battalion Chief Kevin Taylor. The others were Fire Capt. Jonathan Stornetta, firefighter-paramedic Joseph Costa, and firefighters Michael Orr and Robert Smith.
Police and bystanders arrived first and hurried to stop the fire with hand-held extinguishers, but the car continued to burn. The collision knocked out power to the area, but rescuers operated under the assumption that the primary power lines on the ground were live with up to 21,000 volts of electricity.
Cox stayed back and prepared the engine’s equipment and water supply while Prickett checked his breathing apparatus and walked toward the crumpled Mercury sedan, the hose stretched behind him.
“Your senses note the hazards but you do what you need to do you get the guy out of the car,” he said.
Painfully aware of each step he took, Prickett called out to the young man. The driver’s side window was either already blown out or rolled down.
“I said, ‘Hey, are you there?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’” Prickett said. “It was muffled. His chin was to his chest.”
By then, a second city fire engine had arrived. Some firefighters stayed on lookout while others helped get the victim out and control the fire.
Typically protocol calls for rescuers to support and brace victims as they’re pulled from crushed vehicles, but with the fire closing in, live wires and water everywhere, “they just needed to get him out — and fast,” Taylor said.
Rescuers cut the sedan’s window frame away and pulled the driver from the car. His ankles were broken and he began to cry out in pain.
They worked for 10 minutes to free the teen, but Prickett said he wouldn’t have known it.
“Time stood still,” he said.
The Fire Department plans to honor the rescuers for their efforts, but the details are still in the works.
Afterward, with the risk lower, crews let the car burn for 45 minutes as they waited for PG&E to cut the power. Pictures from the scene show the vehicle partially melted into the road. The victim was taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.
In addition to his two broken ankles, the teen suffered other undisclosed injuries.
Paso Robles police suspect he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. They also have evidence that he was driving 100 mph in a 45 mph zone, Lt. Ty Lewis said.
As of Tuesday, police were waiting on the results of a toxicology report before criminal charges could be filed with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. Those results can take several weeks, Lewis said.
After the incident, the teen was transferred to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where police believe he is still receiving care. The hospital declined to comment Tuesday.