Strange Luck or Divine Intervention?


It was January 1996 and I just watched a TV report hailing actor Mark Harman as a hero for rescuing two teenagers from a burning vehicle. They said he ran out of his house and before help arrived, he knocked the window of the burning vehicle in and pulled the two boys to safety. One of them while hanging upside down trapped by the seatbelt sustained third degree burns and was in critical condition but survived. During the broadcast by Dave Clark of Channel 9 (KCAL) in Los Angeles, he showed the tree the vehicle hit and it was charred black.

I paused for a moment and then as I had done a thousand times before, my thoughts went back to August 14th, 1992 when I myself was in the exact same position of rescuing a young man trapped inside an upside down burning Blazer S-10. He likewise was trapped by the seatbelt. Unknown to me at the time, as he lay there trapped and on fire, he was thinking, “Oh G-d, I’m going to die the same way my father did.” Let’s go back to the beginning of the story. While my story is not unique as shown by Mark Harman’s story, there are only a relatively few, perhaps a few thousand in the world who have ever been confronted with the type of situation presented here.  

At the time, my family and I lived in Rancho Mirage, Calif. My older daughter Ashley had been invited to visit a school girlfriend who had moved to La Jolla. The girl’s family offered to meet us halfway in a town called Temecula. Going toward San Diego we would drive up Route 74 to 371 and head toward Temecula. Route 74 is otherwise famous since the film “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” was shot there.

It is a treacherous winding dangerous road climbing from sea level at the desert floor to about 5,500ft at the top of the San Jacinto mountain community of Idyllwild.

The family decided that after dropping Ashley off with her friends we would continue on to visit Wild Animal Park near San Diego. Before we started up the mountain, the answering service called and one of my patients, also a friend was having some urgent medical problem and needed to see me, I am a general surgeon. So everyone waited until I took care of my friend and then we were off up Route 74. This first episode delayed us about an hour. It was the first in a series of strange events that would ultimately bring me, CHP officer Durate and the accident together at the exact moment in history to intervene and save a life.

It’s always great going up the mountain, as the air becomes noticeably cooler. The trip up was uneventful and we turned toward San Diego unto Route 371. At that particular intersection there is a rustic country restaurant now called the Paradise Cafe. Tamecula is another forty minutes winding along the countryside. We pulled into Carl’s Jr. where we met Ashley’s friend and her family. Since we hadn’t seen them for some time, we decided to have lunch with them instead of just dropping Ashley off and then we would continue on to San Diego Wild Animal Park. This was the second event that was unplanned but figured critically into the plot of the day.

By the time we finished lunch we had been delayed enough for us to say good-by to Ashley and the Corsinita’s and head back down the mountain. It was approaching 2pm and we figured we could come back tomorrow to visit Wild Animal Park.

So back down we went. The third unscheduled event unfolded as we approached the Paradise Café. My youngest son Christian who was 11 years old at the time began persistently begging for some water. He had had a milkshake at Carl’s Jr. and was decidedly thirsty. His insistence was convincing and so we pulled into the Paradise Cafe for him to get a drink of water and for the rest of us to have ice cream.

There were some scattered low clouds with a little rain slowly going by. We were watching those clouds cooling off the area and enjoying our ice cream when a CHP officer pulled a vehicle over for speeding. This occurred right in front of us and as we all do I thought, “better him than me.” This was the fourth in the series of unplanned events. Without the CHP officer stopping that motorist for speeding, he would have probably been almost to Idyllwild and nowhere near the scene of the accident that was to come sooner than we all knew. As it turned out, we and the officer finished just at the same time and as I was preparing to pull out of the restaurant parking lot the CHP officer was preparing to go back down the mountain in the same direction as I needed to go. I thought the heck with this, I’m not going to have the CHP following me all the way down to Palm Desert, and so I let him go by. I waited a minute or so, giving him plenty of time to get away from me and then I pulled out. Well, wouldn’t you know it, there he was about three-quarters of a mile down pulled off to the side of the road, like he was waiting for me to go by. I thought what the heck is this? He was pulled over just before the first sharp turn down from the restaurant. As it turns out he was probably trying to catch speeders coming around the turn from the other direction. As we approached, a car had just come around the turn and had stopped right by the officer and was apparently talking to him.

I slowed down but went right through and around the corner and head long into the surrealistic scene of the accident. I put on the brakes the instant I realized what had occurred. Looking off to the left I saw a Chevy Blazer S-10 upside down on a little embankment and smoke was coming from the front of the vehicle. There was a man standing by it and I figured he must have been the driver. He had a little blood coming from his mouth but looked to be ok. Further down the road about twenty yards or so, there was another vehicle, a jeep pick-up kind of turned in the middle of the road.

There were a few people beginning to gather down the road a little. No one was behind me. I looked at my wife and said “Don’t worry I’m not going any place and I’m sure (to use bad English), ain’t going out to announce I’m a trauma surgeon.” Everyone concerned seemed at first blush to be ok. I’m sure she was thinking if I got out and identified myself, that we’d be stuck there doing doctor stuff. We were about thirty feet or so from the Blazer. My daughter Alexandra (four at the time), came up in front with us. Christian couldn’t believe his eyes as the story unfolded and was waiting for something to happen, he didn’t have long to wait. The CHP officer came up right behind me and he was using his radio to call for help. As he walked by me he had a fire extinguisher with him.

I thought he would just walk up and put out the fire, ascertain everyone was ok, re-route traffic and we would be on our way in short order. I had put down my window so I could hear, and as the CHP officer walked by and toward the man standing by the Blazer, the man started saying in a distressed tone, there was someone trapped in the Blazer that was on fire.

I turned to my wife and said, “Oh hell I have to go now.” She nodded and with that I got out and walked toward the Blazer. As I approached some things were going through my mind. If I identified myself as a physician and trained trauma surgeon at that, I would be taking on a lot of liability. Would I get blamed if this guy was paralyzed? Since the Blazer was on fire and upside down, our natural inclination was to right it and get this guy out. I yelled into the Blazer, “Are you OK, can you move everything?” From inside came the words I didn’t want to hear. “I can move, but I’m on fire!” Three of us were up by the Blazer on the passenger side. By now, you could see the fire was for real. I said let’s get the thing right side up so we could get the trapped man out. We pushed it off the little embankment and it landed on its side with the driver’s side up.

Immediately the CHP officer tried to put out the fire with his extinguisher. I looked at this effort and realized in a heartbeat it would be futile. I looked around and by this time there were a couple of other guys standing nearby, but I realized no one was going inside the burning vehicle to get this guy out. I thought to myself, “You have to go in there and just do it, that’s why you’re here.” I walked around the back and just as I was about to go in, I had this thought, that Jesus wasn’t going to let me die that day.

My dad was killed when I was twelve and if the guy in the Blazer died along with me then two families would be without dads. I knew I had been called to be there to do this thing and it was as if I had been programmed, it was effortless but maximally exhilarating. The smoke (in just a few seconds), was much darker. I was a swimmer in high school and college and I don’t smoke.

I took a deep breath and crawled through the back window which had popped out during the accident. I crawled in the space between the seats and the roof of the vehicle, remember the Blazer was on its side.

As I got up to the front, I could see the separated dashboard and the fire coming up on the left. I could see the victim’s left leg was on fire and he was hanging off the seat toward the passenger seat with his right leg jammed into the passenger seat, it had sustained a compound fracture (where the bone sticks through the skin). While I’m not Arnold Scharzenegger, I’m not a weakling either. I grabbed him from the shoulders and pulled to get him out but he wouldn’t budge. I thought what the heck? He said before lapsing into unconsciousness, “It’s the f—ing seat belt.” He was lying on the belt causing tension so the belt wouldn’t relax and I couldn’t push the release button. The smoke was getting worse and darker. I took a breath from the air that was least smoky. I looked down at Fred’s (Fred Garbutt was his name) head and it was in smoky air and I wondered if he was about to suffocate.

I yelled out if anyone had a knife. The CHP officer (Officer Paul Duarte) yelled back that he had one so I made my way back to the rear of the vehicle. He handed me his knife and I took another deep breath and headed back in. As I did so, I could see the flames were getting large, the smoke getting blacker and I thought if I don’t get him out this time we’re both going to die.

Remember the movie Backdraft? For those who don’t, it’s about firefighters and in one scene a fireman was in a hallway and as the fire came out from under a door, it seemed to come up in front of the fireman and for a moment they both seemed to be communicating with each other. It seemed to be almost an understanding and like it was all taking place in slow motion. I had the same feeling, like I was moving in slow motion and that while my life was in obvious danger; it seemed I was being allowed to move alongside the flames to free Fred. I looked into those flames and it was like I was staring into eternity and both of us were a heartbeat away from knowing the ultimate truth.

As I got right next to him, by the grace of G-d I was able to see the seat belt coming over his shoulder and it cut like butter with officer Duarte’s knife. I took a breath and started to cough as the air was so thick with smoke, and Fred was unconscious. I grabbed him under his arms and pulled him back. I had to dislodge his right leg with my right foot since his leg had the fracture and was still jammed under the passenger seat. I began to pull him back from the front seat along the space between the top of the seats and the roof, remember, the Blazer was on its side. I could see the flames go out on his leg and back as I pulled him out. I later found out Fred was about 6’2″ and weighed about 210lbs. Officer Duarte and another man were there and helped me get him out and Duarte and I dragged Fred across Highway 74, the distance was only about thirty feet or so.

Just as we got Fred across the highway, the Blazer became engulfed in flames producing voluminous pitch black smoke. It looked like a jet plane crash. There was no explosion but that vehicle was immersed in an inferno of flames where Fred and I had been only seconds ago.

Having freed Fred, my attention then turned to his medical condition which looked to be precarious to say the least. Officer Duarte had brought oxygen and a cervical collar that we applied with care. I straightened his leg and wrapped it with a makeshift brace. In the fresh air Fred began to barely mumble. I looked him over and noticed blood coming from his left side. At first, I thought this is strange since third degree burns don’t bleed and I knew that was what he had. The flames had burned right through the skin, they would require skin grafting. I cut off his shirt to see if I was right and sure enough there was a small hole in the lateral (side) of his left chest. I knew this was probably a pneumothorax (punctured lung). If they are not treated immediately sometimes the lung is pushed toward the heart because the air that you breathe in goes out through the hole and is trapped inside the chest. Depending on the size of the hole in the lung, the lung collapses and blood supply to the heart is cut off and the victim dies. The treatment is a chest tube that sucks the air out until the lung expands and heals. Obviously I didn’t have a chest tube. At that instant the fire department showed up and I thought “good the paramedics will have equipment.”  

I asked the first fireman who came up if he had any gloves? If worse came to worse, I was going to put my gloved finger through the hole in Fred’s chest and let the trapped air out. The fireman asked who I was and I said I was a trained trauma surgeon and he asked if I had any I.D.?

I didn’t have anything that said I was a physician so I turned to officer Duarte and said, “If this guy has a pneumothorax and he doesn’t get treatment, he won’t make it to the hospital.” Officer Duarte said, “Do what you have to do.” The fireman didn’t say anything and I went to work. I took the glove, put it on and gently stuck my index finger inside Fred’s chest. You could hear the air come out in a SWOOOSH. I did this three times until the helicopter came. I tried to talk to Fred but he was in shock and not responding well. Right after the firemen arrived they put tons of water on the fire and it was out quickly.

Only a short time passed and the rescue helicopter arrived. The chopper was big and sounded awesome. It reminded me of the times back in my surgical residency at Loyola when I was on the burn team. If a call came in about a burn victim a long way off, I would call the Cook County Fire Department and they would land their big county helicopter at the hospital and we would fly to the victim many miles away. We would land in parking lots with many people surrounding the chopper. Sometimes I would do emergency surgery on the victims like a fasciaotomy (cutting the fibrous sheath around the muscle so it can get blood supply). I didn’t have much time to think about that though. We transferred Fred to the waiting chopper and I said a few words to the crew about his condition. In a few seconds Fred was off to Desert Hospital trauma unit. Fred would be in the hospital a few weeks recovering from multiple skin grafts, having his spleen removed and lung fixed along with his broken leg.

As I watched the helicopter go off, I turned and walked toward my car. I thought to myself, “I really did something good here.” It was a different good than just doing a surgery well.

I walked up to my wife and said just that. My wife as it turns out was not aware I had been in Fred’s vehicle because of the smoke. I felt as though if you had cancer or something that if you would have touched me, you would have been cured on the spot. I mean I never had that type of feeling in twenty years as a surgeon. It was just a feeling of profound good. I took Christian up to the Blazer and looking in from the back, it was just a completely burned out hulk.

We listened to all the comments looked the scene over and quietly drove back home. The following morning a report of the accident was in the newspaper and TV interviews followed. Christian and I went to visit Fred in the hospital and his wife and kids were there. Fred is married to Kym, and they had two daughters at that time ages two and four.

We all kind of cried seeing him and reliving the story. He would be there many days recovering with multiple surgeries. He would eventually heal enough to go home and today he is almost back to normal. I learned from Fred much later, that as he was lying upside down and on fire, he was saying to himself that “Oh G-d, I’m going to die just like my father.” I pondered more than a few hundred times what my intervention meant that day.

Two fathers could have been lost that day but something more important needed to be done and that was two fathers needed to live. The preservation of life and helping someone who at that given moment in time could not help himself out of a death trap was the essence of that day.

Some months passed and I received a letter from the Carnegie Hero Commission that I had been nominated for the Carnegie Medal for and outstanding act of heroism. I must confess that I had never heard of the Carnegie Medal but it sounded intriguing. Interviews were conducted, information gathered and months passed. This next happening is what put the whole experience in the realm of a religious epiphany. I came home from work and there was a certified letter confirming that I would be awarded the Carnegie Medal. I looked at the letter a while and as I did, I reached into a box where I have a lot of VCR tapes many unmarked. Sometimes I like to look at them to see what I found interesting two or three years in the past. I reached into the pile and pulled an unmarked tape out and popped it into the VCR.

As the tape began not only was it Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell on PBS, but it was them discussing why one man would lay down his life for another who he doesn’t even know. I thought, “I’ve got to listen to this.” For those of you who don’t know, Joseph Campbell until his death a few years ago was the West’s foremost authority of myths and religion. Bill Moyers interviews Mr. Campbell over several hours discussing almost all ancient myths and how they relate to our lives today.

Remember, I had just received the letter telling me I would be awarded the Carnegie Medal and I had just pulled an unmarked tape out of the about twenty and this story unfolds told by Joseph Campbell. So Mr. Moyers asks Professor Campbell, “Why does one man lay down his life for someone he doesn’t even know?” I was riveted to the set. Joe started in with this story about two cops driving their beat in Hawaii (where Joe lived). There is a place going up to Diamond Head called the Pali.

There the wind blows hard and according to legend, the wind blew so mightily that it once saved the life of a princess as it blew her back to safety when she fell over the edge. This place is high up and unfortunately people also go there to jump off and commit suicide. Well, as the two cops rounded the corner they saw a man at the edge who was obviously preparing to jump.

They slam on the brakes and the cop on the right gets out followed by the cop who was driving. The cop in the right gets to the man first and grabs him as he is jumping over the edge. He begins wrestling with him to prevent him from going over the cliff. Well, the cop would have gone over with the man if it weren’t for his partner coming and preventing the two from going over, and they saved the man’s life. After the press picked up on the cop’s heroic act, they asked the cop why didn’t you just leave the guy jump? The cop’s answer was, “If I would have let that man jump, I could not have live with myself another day.” This is nearly the same feeling I had right after Fred’s accident when people asked me why I went into the burning car not once but twice?

If my dad knew his son was in the position I had arrived at, turned away from another human being in desperate need he would have turned over in his grave. Although a civilian I felt with my surgery training, that I had been prepared to act just the way I did without hesitation that day August 14, 1992. So that was a story of one man risking his life for another but Campbell was about to enlighten the viewers with the reason way people do those things.

Campbell talked of Author Schopenhauer (a German philosopher in the late 1700’s) rational for all this. I really wanted to hear this because I had lived it. Well, Schopenhauer would have said that stories like the one above and mine were a realization of the metaphysical breakthrough that we are all one and the only thing that separates any of us is the temporal relationship of time and space. The cop and the man were actually one and in my case as well, I was actually saving myself from the burning vehicle.

This revelation together with the actual experience caused me to reflect profoundly on these events and how life is altered by them. I don’t know if Schopenhauer was right but as far as I’m concerned, there is more to life on earth than meets the eye. Being in that fire was for me like being in and looking at eternity, putting it all on the line for that moment in time. I felt like I at last had a handle on life and what it meant to act in an unselfish manner. There is nothing like profound good to quench the soul. Like I always say to anyone who wants to hear the story, we looked evil in the eye that day and evil lost. In fact, many times I have wished I could experience that moment of profound good again because there is nothing like looking death in the eye and coming out on top. It was exhilarating to say the least.

Realizing that feeling, it was somewhat disappointingly enigmatic that my medal came by regular mail and the box was just stuck in the fence. What if I had died affecting that rescue? I think for what it is worth, the Carnegie Hero Fund should present these medals at an official awards ceremony. It would do the country good to see that in the hearts of many, honor has not left the stage. That year of Carnegie awards four died affecting their rescue and I thought maybe I should give the medal back. Receiving that medal in the fence like that well, I felt as though the purpose of the medal was dishonored.

The story doesn’t end there.  Fast forward to 2014. While I didn’t know who I was rescuing back in 1992, the Garbutt’s (Kym and Fred) have become very good friends. It turns out they actually live about two miles from us in La Quinta. We meet every so often and on that anniversary date every year we do dinner. They had a baby about a year and a half after the accident and we call that baby the miracle baby.  Over the years going to San Diego we have passed that turn many times and it evokes the adventure of that day. You have probably passed it as well. It’s either the last turn before the long straightaway leading to the Paradise Café going toward San Diego or it’s the first turn going down to Palm Desert from the café.

The lesson learned was be very very careful and drive slowly going up and down Hwy 74 unless you see me in your rear view mirror.

Take Care

Dr. Bretz