Quiet heroism

He dragged an accident victim from a burning car, then went home without a word

John Rodriguez is being hailed as a hero.

John Rodriguez is being hailed as a hero.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Tired after putting in a long day working at Smogman, his smog inspection shop, John Rodriguez was eager to head home on November 26. Along the way, he stopped his car to get gas at the Arco AM/PM station at the corner of Fruitridge and Stockton.

He was snapped from his weariness by the screech of a car skidding, the sound of metal colliding, followed by more skidding and collisions. As he swung around to face the intersection, two cars were already in flames.

Rodriguez turned the gas pump’s handle to the off position and ran to the scene. By that time, a third vehicle involved in the crash had backed out of the way and he observed a white Mazda wedged under the front wheel of a Chevy Tahoe sport utility vehicle.

Without glancing behind, the driver of the Tahoe jumped out between the flaming vehicles and ran, obviously fleeing the impending explosion. At this point, Rodriguez had to make an instantaneous decision: look through the Tahoe’s dark tinted windows for other passengers or run to help the driver of the Mazda?

This was not the first time Rodriguez, a veteran of eight years in the Air Force, had assisted at the scene of a traffic accident. Having learned first aid as an Air Force medivac team member, he was assigned to haul the stretchers carrying the first casualties of the American invasion of Panama into the hospital.

A few years later, as a civilian, he staunched the severely bleeding head wound of a woman who was hit by a car as she crossed the street in front of his brother’s auto repair shop on Fruitridge Boulevard.

Not long after that, commuting to work one morning, he himself was involved in a minor traffic accident. Back on the road a few minutes later, “still in shock” from his own accident, he saw a man hit by a car and tossed 50 yards. Rodriguez stopped to assist the man and was about to begin CPR when the paramedics arrived. Unfortunately, the man died at the scene. A short time later, Rodriguez responded when a car hit a boy on a bicycle.

A compact but powerfully built man with an affable smile, Rodriguez chalks up his emergency volunteerism to his strong faith in God and his prayers asking to “help in any way I can.”

“I didn’t see [the Tahoe driver show] any concern for the car,” Rodriguez said, speculating that he was alone in the vehicle. Making his decision, Rodriguez ran to the Mazda and saw the driver’s door was partially open.

“You need to get out of the car,” he told the driver. “Your car is on fire.”

However, when he looked at the man behind the wheel, Rodriguez saw that he was “moving spastically and drooling,” probably having a seizure.

Rodriguez saw a child’s car seat in the back, but no other occupants were in the vehicle. He unhooked the man’s seatbelt, grabbed him around the chest and pulled him out of the car. Another man appeared on the scene and took hold of the man’s feet. Together they carried him toward the center median strip of the intersection.

“The tires were popping,” Rodriguez said. The car was burning so fast, “it was almost like wood.”

Realizing they were too close to the fire, Rodriguez and the other rescuer, who declined to speak to the Sacramento News & Review, carried the victim across the street.

Rodriguez attempted to call 9-1-1 on his cell phone, but couldn’t get through. Other people gathered around the seizure victim. Rodriguez noticed the man’s movements began to slow and prayed, “Oh no, God, not another one. I don’t want to watch another man die.”

Seeing eye movements, he realized the man, later identified as Demitrious Collins, was still alive. He then heard an enormous boom as the SUV exploded. Along with “four or five other people,” he picked up Collins and “carried him to the Chevron [station across the street] through the bushes, far away from the [intersection].”

As units from the Fire Department, the Police Department and the Highway Patrol responded to the incident, “the man started hyperventilating … his chest heaving.” Rodriguez unzipped the man’s jacket so that he could breathe more easily and Collins “took in one gasp of air, sat up, and said, ‘Damn.’ ”

“Don’t get up,” Rodriguez advised him. “You might be hurt.”

“Whose red car is at the AM/PM?” a female police officer asked the rescuers. “You need to get over there and move that car because the gas pump is still in there,” she told Rodriguez.

Rodriguez walked back to his car, parked it and went into the station to collect his change from shift manager Manish Anajwala. After hearing the explosion, Anajwala had called 9-1-1 and ran outside to shut off the station’s pumps. He watched Rodriguez pull Collins out of the burning car.

For a few minutes Rodriguez stood in the crowd that had gathered and watched the vehicles burn as the Fire Department attempted to put out the blaze. “Nobody asked me any questions,” he said. “I felt my part was done.”

So Rodriguez just went home.

The police report on the accident—which attributes the cause to Collins (who had no lasting injuries) having a seizure while driving—refers to Rodriguez only as an anonymous witness who helped pull the man from the flaming car. SN&R learned of Rodriguez’s heroism from one of his customers who had heard the story.

“Some things you do quietly,” Rodriguez said. “The treasure you get is in heaven—not to receive accolades here—but because it is for a better purpose.”

He says he didn’t even think about what was happening, he just reacted. “I did what I felt was necessary and important at the time. I’d do it again. There’s no greater gift we can give each other than the sacrifice of self for another person.”

Rodriguez shrugs off the hero label. “Maybe if I do it 20 times more,” he says with a self-effacing smile.