Michael T. Chura
Photo credit: Courtesy photo
Even though Michael Chura was on vacation, he believes he was in the right place at the right time to save a woman from a wreck who most certainly would have died if he had not intervened.
Chura, who is district chief for the Syracuse (N.Y.) Fire Department and an EMT, was headed to the Jersey Shores for a family retreat last August when he happened on a Jeep Cherokee on its roof starting to catch fire. He was on the interstate, zipping along in the passing lane when his instincts took over.
"I immediately pulled to the right and parked," Chura said recalling August 10 at rush hour on the Atlantic City Expressway. "I thought I could see a person hanging upside down in the seatbelt."
He was one of the first on the scene of the wreck which happened just seconds, or minutes before he arrived and long before any police or rescue vehicles.
Leaving his wife and his 20-year-old daughter in his vehicle, he ran down the slight embankment knowing he had little to no time to get the woman out of the overturned SUV.
As he was on vacation, Chura said he was wearing a polo shirt and shorts with no tools, only his hands and 32 years of training and experience as a volunteer and career firefighter as his back up.
"I knew I didn't really have time to come up with a plan," Chura said, explaining that the rapidly advancing engine fire was about to impinge the passenger's compartment. "I wasn't 100 percent sure I could get her out in time."
Other motorists on the scene hollered at him to get away from the vehicle, fearing it would explode like the Hollywood movies, but Chura knew better and figured he had a bit of time, but not much, to see what he could do to save the woman who was conscious and fully aware of the peril.
"She said later she was prepared to die," Chura said.
But it wasn't her time and the 61-year-old woman would live to tell about the nearly tragic event. Chura got himself inside the Jeep, climbing in the passenger's side and worked the release on the seatbelt to free the woman.
"It took me seven or eight tries to get the seatbelt un-done," he said, adding that he was finally successful just as fire breached the firewall and the heat built in the vehicle.
Two other gentlemen stopped and offered help. Chura instructed the Good Samaritans to pull the woman from the Jeep just as she hit the roof with a thud. Chura then extracted himself from the upside down vehicle and help pull the woman from the vehicle which quickly became fully involved.
"Within 30 seconds after we got her out, it was really rocking and rolling," he said, noting he and his helpers had to drag the woman a few times as the fire grew larger, eventually consuming the vehicle. With the immediate threat to life passed, Chura said he could begin to do some patient assessment and think about treatment.
"She had several lacerations on her face and arms that would require sutures, but was conscious, breathing and talking to me," Chura said. "So, outside of bleeding control, and with no medical equipment, there wasn't much I could do."
The woman asked for her eye glasses and her purse which were in the Jeep and at that point irretrievable.
"I just told her that she really didn't need those right now," Chura said, adding that at about the same time, there were some obvious sounds and sights from the fire that made the woman aware that those items were gone. "She just said 'OK.'"
Fire and rescue crews quickly arrived on the scene as New Jersey State Police blocked an exit ramp and allowed emergency vehicles to travel against traffic for quicker access. Later, Chura learned that from the time lapse from when he pulled over to when he had successfully got the woman out of the Jeep and way from immediate danger was no more than three minutes.
"It happened very quickly and, outside of the initial accident, everything went in favor of the woman," he said.
Not looking much the part of a fire chief and EMT, dressed in appropriate clothing for vacation, Chura had some explaining to do when the ambulance crew came along. He identified himself as a New York fire chief and EMT and transferred care to the ambulance crew.
Covered in blood from tending to his patient, Chura decided he should probably find a way to decontaminate before talking to police and certainly before getting back into his vehicle and continuing on vacation.
"One of the state troopers had a bottle of antibacterial soap and I got some water from the fire department hoses as they broke down the line (to put out the car fire)," Chura said.
Chura later learned the woman suffered several concussions, a shoulder injury and a collapsed lung after the Jeep had rolled at least twice and hit a tree before landing on its roof. The woman survived and Chura has talked with her several times since.
"She's just so happy with the way things turned out," Chura said. "She was amazed that so many things happened and so many people came together for just a short period of time to help her out and then went on their way."
After clearing the scene, and heading on his way to vacation, Chura was nonchalant about the rescue and the fact he had saved a woman's life. In fact, he told his wife and daughter not to make a big deal about it and cautioned his daughter not to post it on Facebook.
He later realized that was a mistake. They had never seen their loved one do his job on such a personal an intimate level, witnessing it from start to finish.
"It was a little different having them witness what I do for work," Chura said. "I am the kind of guy who leaves work at the station and I don't bring it home."
Over the next couple of months, as family and friends started hearing what he had done, it began to sink in what he had done and how much it made a difference to the woman he saved.
He then realized that his family needed to process what they had witnessed and part of that was talking to people and telling them what they saw.
"I told them tell whoever they wanted and talk about it all they wanted," Chura said. "It just seemed like they needed to."
Although it turned out for the best, Chura would be the first to acknowledge that it could have turned out much differently. The vehicle was just seconds away from becoming a fire ball and not only could it have claimed the life of the woman, his too.
In fact, Chura said his wife prevented their daughter, who has training in sports medicine, from going anywhere near the scene. "She said she had no idea how bad it was going to get and didn't want our daughter in it too." From the sidelines, however, his daughter did take some photos of the incident, having grabbed the camera from the back of his vehicle.
For Chura, having his family there was a unique experience, but not as unique as being so intimately involved with saving someone's life.
"In all my 32 years in the fire service, it was like nothing I've experienced," Chura said, noting that he's been part of teams that have affected rescues and saved lives, but nothing as singular or personal as what he experience that day in New Jersey.
"If I hadn't happen on the scene exactly when I did, and things didn't go exactly the way it did, things would have been much different," Chura said. "I would say that 90 to 95 percent of those in the fire service, both volunteer and paid don't get to experience what I experience."
In addition to begin recognized by Firehouse with a heroism award, Chura said he will be receiving a Medal of Valor in New Jersey from the Atlantic Firefighters' Association and is a contender for a Carnegie Hero Medal for his actions.
"I guess it was a bigger deal than I originally thought," Chura said. "But it really was a matter of being in the right place at the right time."