Jackson resident recounts saving woman from burning vehicle

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On the morning of Sept. 16, Barry Whalen of Jackson was driving his dump truck on Interstate 78 in the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township, Somerset County, when he saw a car that had overturned and a woman trapped inside.

The woman, who was later identified as 46-year-old resident of East Brunswick, Middlesex County, was driving a Toyota Rav4 when her vehicle left the road and overturned at about 10 a.m.

Whalen, 54, said he did not see the accident occur, but arrived at the location seconds after it happened.

“One guy who was there just looked like he was in a panic and freaking out,” said Whalen, who added he generally does not pull over at the scene of an accident. “There was some smoke coming out of the engine, but it was not on fire.”

Whalen said that as he approached the vehicle, flames started to shoot out from under the hood.

“All the airbags were deployed and all the windows were broken, except for the windshield, which is a good thing. I walked over to the driver’s side and that is when I saw just how badly hurt she was,” he said, adding that the driver appeared to be unconscious and had a large gash on her head.

“Then I started seeing the flames and I was like, OK, this is a problem. I started yanking on the door and it would not open,” Whalen said.

By that time other motorists had stopped and Whalen said a young man helped him with the door.

“We started yanking on the driver’s side door, now the flames are really shooting out of the vehicle … Within two minutes the whole car was engulfed in flames,” he said.

He said as people were attempting to open the doors on both sides of the vehicle, the woman regained consciousness.

“I guess with the car rocking back and forth, shaking her up, she came to … Someone said maybe the doors were locked,” Whalen said, adding that the people around the vehicle tried to tell the woman to unlock the doors.

“I ran around to the driver’s side to open the door, but it only opened about a foot because the front fender was crushed into the door, but it was enough that I could squeeze my body behind the door and just push.

“The door opened and I grabbed her. The flames were really bad, it was very hot. If I could not have opened the door when I did, I think I would have only had about another 10 seconds before I would have had to leave because it was very hot,” Whalen said.

“We saw the flames and I said I can’t let this lady burn; she is going to burn to death in there. I am not going to sit here and watch this. I was starting to panic,” Whalen said, adding that flames were under the dashboard. “Her legs got burned as I was pulling her out. I was pulling her out and I could not get her out.”

Whalen finally got the woman out and carried her to safety. He said by that time the entire vehicle was burning. He said the woman sustained burns to her legs, a broken wrist and the gash on her head.

Whalen lived in Howell for 28 years before he moved to Jackson. On Oct. 22, the members of the Howell Township Council recognized his life-saving efforts by presenting him with a certificate of appreciation. The recognition was nice, he said, but the situation really came into perspective for him several days before the council meeting.

“I got a letter from the woman and it said ‘thank you for saving my life’ and she signed it. Then it said ‘thank you for saving my wife’ and her husband signed it, and then it said ‘thank you for saving our Mom’ and her kids signed it.

“All this (recognition) is nice, but you can’t beat that (letter). That is the best part of everything right there,” Whalen said, adding that he has spoken with the woman, but has not met her yet.