Right place, right time lets deputy save life

The off-duty deputy spots and follows a swerving car on State Road 52 and is there to save the driver when the car crashes and catches fire.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 7, 2003


LAND O'LAKES - The first sign of trouble came as two cars veered off the side of the road in front of Pasco County sheriff's Deputy Lane Winters.

Winters quickly saw why. A Dodge Stratus was driving toward him - in his lane.

During the next 10 minutes, the Stratus' driver would lead Winters on a wild ride - knocking out mailboxes, nearly running an FBI agent off the road, careening through a major intersection - before Winters would rescue the driver from a burning car.

It was about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, and Winters was off the clock, headed to off-duty patrol detail.

The Stratus bore down on him, just two or three car lengths away as he drove east on State Road 52 near Pasco Trails Boulevard.

Winters swerved off the road, onto the shoulder. The Stratus swerved back into its proper lane and then off the north shoulder.

"I saw in my rearview mirror (the Stratus) had gone off the road into the grass," he said. "I thought the person crashed. So I turned around to check on the car when it came back on the road."

Now headed west, Winters turned on his sirens and lights, tailing the Stratus.

"I was thinking this person is either drunk or has a medical condition," he said. "I knew I needed to stop this car before someone got hurt."

Seconds later, driving west, the Stratus cut across lanes and drove off the south shoulder of SR 52, according to Winters. The Stratus swerved back onto the road, into oncoming traffic.

A black car, carrying an FBI agent, drove off the road to miss the Stratus.

The Stratus, traveling at 45 mph, kept swerving, at one point driving in the grass on the side of the road. At Pilot Country Drive, it knocked out two mailboxes.

It continued moving, headed for the intersection of SR 52 and U.S. 41.

"I'm thinking, "This is going to be bad,"' Winters said. With no backup near him, all he could do was follow with his sirens blaring, lights flashing.

The Stratus headed straight for a metal guard rail on the northbound shoulder, but suddenly swerved away.

Just then the traffic light turned green, but likely seeing the flashing lights and hearing the siren, eastbound drivers did not move. The Stratus swerved across their path at 40 mph and struck a tree at the southwest corner of the intersection.

Winters jumped out and tried to get inside the car. The doors were locked; the tinted windows rolled up.

Not knowing what was going on inside the car, Winters unholstered his baton and broke out the front passenger side window. The driver, 50-year-old Wendy Kennedy Neurock, a health assistant for the Pasco County School District, sat inside, clutching the steering wheel and bleeding from the forehead.

Was she okay? Winters asked. No, was all she would say.

Just then a passing motorist who had stopped said, "Hey, deputy, the car's on fire."

Flames licked the crunched hood from a fire behind the engine.

Winters grabbed the fire extinguisher from his squad car trunk and sprayed the fire. He returned to get Neurock out of the car, but he couldn't lift her across the console and bucket seats. The driver's side door was blocked by a fence.

At that point, FBI Agent Lawrence Wolfenden, who moments before got run off the road, was standing by, offering to help.

Another passer-by called to Winters.

"Hey, the car is on fire," Winters heard, again. Smoke poured out from the hood. But this time, his fire extinguisher was empty. Firefighters were on their way, but Winters didn't know how long they'd take.

Neurock remained silent, her face a blank stare.

"We said, "Ma'am, we need to get you out of the car,"' Wolfenden remembered. "You need to help us get you out of the car."'

Wolfenden stomped on the fence blocking the driver's door. He and Winters reached in and pulled Neurock's upper body while a passing motorist helped get her legs out of the car from the passenger's side.

The three men then carried her 50 feet away from the car to rest on the side of the road. Less than a minute later, Winters said, firefighters arrived. Seconds later, so did paramedics.

Neurock was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital, treated and released.

Neurock was a diabetic and had been having a "diabetic emergency," according to Winters' report.

She could not be reached for comment. School district officials said she is a health assistant at Weightman Middle School.

Helping Neurock was gratifying, but nothing heroic, said the 32-year-old Winters, who has been with the Sheriff's Office for 21/2 years with a total of 121/2 years in law enforcement, first working as an officer in New Jersey.

Still, he recognizes that his actions helped control the fire long enough to get Neurock out of the car.

Moments later, the flames could have spread through the fire wall and begun devouring the car's interior.

"I was in the right place at the right time," he said Wednesday, before setting out for another day on the street crimes unit.

"I'm going to get a new fire extinguisher," he said, "and then I'll be on my way."

- Saundra Amrhein covers police news in east Pasco. She can be reached at 352 521-5757, ext. 23, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23. Her e-mail address is amrhein@sptimes.com

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