It has been said that not all superheroes wear capes. For one driver on the 405 freeway this week, this adage held true.
He was pulled from his burning car on Monday afternoon by uniformed members of UCLA’s Army ROTC program who happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right training.
“We don’t always get an opportunity as cadre members to demonstrate to our cadet members that we practice what we preach,” said Lieutenant Colonel Shannon Stambersky, chair of the ROTC program at UCLA. “We talk about our deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, but never in a million years would you ever expect to be called upon to do something in Los Angeles.”
Stambersky and three other uniformed staff were riding in a minivan on the southbound 405 heading back to campus with two civilian staff members. They saw a northbound big rig crash into the concrete median barrier and overturn, sending debris flying onto the southbound lanes.
“I initially thought it was the center divider exploding because the truck was carrying what looked like chunks of concrete and gravel,” said Sergeant First Class and ROTC military science instructor Rhu Maggio, who was at the wheel of the minivan in the southbound carpool lane. The minivan stopped about 100 feet from where the big rig lay across the center barrier of the freeway. The group jumped out and ran toward the overturned truck, working first to locate the driver.
“It hit with such force and noise, and there was a huge fireball,” said Maggio.
Maggio and Major Tyrone Vargas, an Army ROTC assistant adjunct professor, helped make sure that the driver got out safely and moved away from the flames. Standing beside the truck, they noticed a crumpled Honda wedged underneath the wreckage.
“That’s when we all rushed to aid the trapped driver of the car,” said Major Steve Kwon, who is currently stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky but was visiting UCLA this week. “By then the fire was already burning and was picking up flames.”
Civilian staff members Victoria Sanelli, manager of UCLA Army ROTC, and Romeo Miguel, the recruiting operations officer, worked to control the chaotic scene on the freeway and asked other motorists for fire extinguishers and bottled water to help fight the fire. They were joined by several Good Samaritans who also stopped to help.
Stambersky said piles of debris that spilled from the truck’s trailer impeded efforts to reach and extract the driver. This obstacle, and the Honda’s position against the freeway barrier under heavy smoke, hindered the rescuers. They worked for about 20 minutes to dig through the debris, she said. A motorist provided an electric saw to cut through the reinforcing bar in the damaged concrete median and create enough space to pull the injured motorist out the window of the burning car. He was transported to UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center with injuries.
“I truly believe they saved his life … To them, we say thank you very much,” CHP Sgt. Jose Ahumada told Los Angeles television station KTLA. Other media coverage of the crash, which tied up the freeway for hours, had reports of unidentified rescuers who were in military uniform.
“We train, we work, we’re ready for when anything happens to make decisions and then lead,” said Vargas. “Everybody just fell in line … We could not have stopped the fire. It was too big already. But we had enough time to save this individual.”
About 20 to 30 seconds after the man was pulled from the car, the vehicle was engulfed in flames, said Kwon. “We’ve experienced things that have conditioned our bodies to witness these kinds of events, so the Army did a great job of training us and the ROTC does a great job of training future leaders."
Kwon was on his first day of a weeklong visit to UCLA, where he has been tapped to become the next chair of UCLA Army ROTC, pending final approval. Kwon will succeed Stambersky, who has served as chair for three years and is preparing for a new role at the Pentagon.
“I’d never met Major Vargas or First Class Maggio until yesterday,” Kwon said. “Just the communication we had, we’ve already established a rapport and I would gladly have any of these people in my foxhole during combat. That’s probably the biggest compliment you could give to a soldier.”
UCLA’s ROTC program was started in 1920 and has an enrollment of roughly 100 students. Most of them are enrolled at UCLA, but about 30 attend nearby colleges and universities that do not have ROTC programs.
“It’s a pretty historic and legacied program,” said Lt. Col. Stambersky, noting that UCLA ROTC alumni include tennis legend Arthur Ashe and baseball barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson. “It’s a chance for students to serve their country and, for most, have their college paid for. And they get to be officers in the Army when they graduate. Some are doctors and lawyers for the Army, some are infantry officers or logistics officers … I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity to serve your country while still going to college.”
Reflecting on Monday’s events, Stambersky said she is incredibly proud of the team effort demonstrated by her colleagues. They showed leadership in a time-sensitive life-and-death situation and gave direction to the other people who stop to help save a life on the freeway.
“I think yesterday showed us that there are a lot of good people out there,” she said.