James Bray, a parts manager at Fix Auto Portland East in Oregon was tested in a big way when he was called upon to pull a man out of a burning car and save his life.
If Bray ever had any doubts about his courage or his ability to act heroically, they were all answered at 2 a.m. on December 3. In a highly stressful situation requiring quick thinking and quicker action, Bray was able to think fast and take lifesaving action. That early morning a BMW hit a utility pole right in front of Bray’s house in Vancouver, Washington. Normally, Bray would have been asleep, but luckily for the driver, he was still awake, playing computer games.
Sounds in the night are mostly weather or animal-related in Vancouver, but this one caught Bray’s attention immediately. “It was a very deep pop sound and I had no idea what it might be. So, I went to the window in the living room and that’s when I saw the car wrapped around the light pole.”
With an orange glow coming from under the hood, Bray instantly knew it was more than just a fender bender.
“So many things went through my mind. Is someone in there and will the car explode? So, I said to my wife call 911. I got dressed as fast as I could and ran out to the vehicle.”
Bray assessed the scene quickly and it didn’t look promising at the outset. He explained, “one guy got out through the back seat, and another guy jumped out through the front passenger-side door. The BMW’s windows were tinted and the car was quickly filling up with smoke. I asked the two guys if anyone was still left in the car, but they weren’t making any sense. They were basically incoherent.”
Rather than wait for a response that wasn’t forthcoming, Bray acted. “I hit the driver’s window with a flashlight that I always carry with me, but it wouldn’t break. So, I smacked it again and this time it shattered. I could see there was a driver stuck in there and he was yelling, because his legs were on fire. I told my wife Mindy to bring the fire extinguisher.”
Bray could see that the door was unlocked, but it wouldn’t open. “I tried to open it a few times, but it was jammed, so I asked the two other guys to help me, but we still couldn’t get it open.”
Bray handed his folding knife to one of the passengers and told him to cut the driver’s seat belt while he tried to put out the flames in the car with the fire extinguisher. But every time the flames subsided, they instantly returned.
“I figured it must be the fuel line, because the flames wouldn’t stop,” Bray said. “At that point, I realized we had to get this guy out of the car right now or he would burn up. So we cut the seat belt, but he still couldn’t get him out. He was stuck in there.”
Bray’s quick thinking and common sense kicked in at that point. “We cut the shoulder belt, not thinking about the lap belt and that’s what was holding him in. I gave my knife to one of the two passengers earlier, but he lost it. But I always carry a Leatherman multi-tool on my key chain and it has a knife. I just reached in there and cut the strap pretty easily.”
After several attempts, the three men pulled the driver from the car through the window, burned but still alive, Bray said.
“His shoes were melted to where I couldn’t recognize them and his pants were on fire. Within seconds, there was an explosion in the vehicle and pretty soon it was completely engulfed in flames. The whole thing took around three minutes, that’s all it was.”
The next day, the Vancouver Police reported that the driver was Brian J. Hall, 22. He was transported to the Legacy Health System’s burn unit in Portland with third degree burns and in serious condition. He and his friends were returning from a University Oregon football game that evening when the accident occurred. Whether alcohol or drugs were involved is still under investigation, according to the Vancouver Police.
Bray’s Aunt Camille Eber is his boss at Fix Auto East Portland and she’s extremely proud of what her nephew did on December 3.
“He did an amazing thing,” she said. “I am very proud of James for his selfless and level-headed reaction. He always carries a keychain Leatherman Tool, a pocket knife and a flashlight. He had all of them that morning and that is why the driver is now alive. We never expect to be in a situation like that, but James did not hesitate and was prepared. He will always be a hero in my eyes.”