Fire Captain Edward McGarry was not on the clock yet. Luckily, he had his equipment and knew that he had to work quickly when he saw smoke and flames.
Driving along his usual morning commute from Marshfield Monday, McGarry spotted a burning car among the pine trees in the median of Route 3 in Rockland, he said.
A woman had been driving south between Exits 15 and 14 at 6:39 a.m. when her car smashed into “a pretty substantial-sized tree,” said Rockland Fire Captain Tom Heaney. The woman was the only person in the car.
“I grabbed my gear and hopped the guardrail and tried to be of assistance,” said McGarry, who has been with the Chelsea Fire Department for 12 years. “When I got up to the car, I found a woman in the driver’s seat trapped in the car.”
There were six bystanders trying to help the woman when McGarry arrived in his helmet, coat, and boots, he said.
McGarry, 41, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he felt an incredible sense of urgency and led the efforts to rescue the woman.
“The engine compartment was on fire, and the fire was extending into the passenger compartment,” he said. “She had to be moved.”
If there were not leaping flames and thickening black smoke, McGarry said, he would have tried to stabilize the woman with a neck brace and back support.
“There was no way,” he said. “There was no time to do that.”
The accident caused significant damage to the vehicle, and the rescuers were unable to open the driver’s side door, he said.
McGarry and the others at the scene tried to pull the woman out headfirst through the driver’s side window, but her legs were pinned between the dashboard and the seat, he said. She was breathing and semiconscious, but not talking, he said.
McGarry tried to free the woman’s legs, but her right leg was wedged, he said.
“When I was trying to free her legs, there were flames shooting up by the brake pedal,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be much longer before the car was filled up.”
A bystander used a fire extinguisher to try to slow the blaze, he said.
“Somebody came up with a fire extinguisher and knocked it down a little bit to buy us some time, but it crept right back up again and kept burning,” he said.
Another person had a fire extinguisher and also tried to douse the flames.
“I asked for another one and next thing you know, somebody came up with one more,” he said. “But what we really needed was the Fire Department and the engine company with the water and the hose.”
The driver of a tractor trailer saw the situation and pulled over. He connected a hook and cable to a pallet jack from his truck and offered to try to pry open the driver’s side door, McGarry said.
“It was just amazing, people’s willingness to step up at a time like that,” he said.
McGarry said some prayers and was finally able to free the woman’s right leg and pull her out through the window.
“There’s no way I could have gotten her out without the bystanders there,” he said. “They stayed right with me. They were not going to leave her.”
The bystanders carried the woman away from the burning car, and McGarry went around to the other side of the vehicle to make sure there were no other passengers, he said.
He then rushed back to the woman to administer emergency care.
The woman was taken to South Shore Hospital and then transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital with life-threatening injuries, including head and abdominal trauma, Heaney said.
McGarry was treated at South Shore Hospital for smoke inhalation and injuries to his hands, McGarry said.
“He just did an outstanding job,” Heaney said.
The Rockland, Norwell, and Hingham fire departments, State Police, and Fallon Ambulance Service responded to the scene of the crash.
McGarry said he is grateful for everyone who helped rescue the woman. “You hope you can make a difference for somebody,” he said. “I’m wishing the family the best, and I hope for a speedy recovery for her.”
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