Firefighter James Blount III pulled two drivers to safety following a fiery crash involving a tractor trailer and a utility truck last July.
Photo credit: York County Department of Fire and Life Safety
YORK COUNTY, Va.-- Firefighter James Blount III unexpectedly extended his workday during an otherwise ordinary drive home last July.
It was at approximately 9:45 a.m. on July 19 when Blount pulled two drivers to safety following a fiery crash involving a tractor trailer and a utility truck on the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge.
For his display of heroism, he was recently awarded with the Carnegie Medal.
The award is presented by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic foundation, to close to a hundred people each year who risk their lives to save another.
Along with the award, Rothell also will receive a $5,000 grant. During the 100-plus-year existence of the fund established by industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1904, more than $30 million has been given in grants, scholarships, death benefits and assistance.
The 32-year-old firefighter, who has worked fulltime for the York County Department of Fire and Life Safety for one year and has volunteered for 19, said that as was driving across the bridge about 300 yards behind the tractor trailer without a car between them.
Suddenly, though, Blount said things took a turn for the worse.
"I saw the tractor trailer lose control, strike the bridge and a utility truck in front of it," he said.
He pulled over, changed into his turnout gear and proceeded to observe the condition of the two injured men.
The driver of the utility truck was unresponsive and the driver of the tractor trailer told Blount he was too hurt to escape his vehicle.
He then grabbed the fire extinguisher from the utility truck and went to work. Despite his efforts, he said the fire continued to burn.
Although traffic was relatively slow, he said cars continued to wiz by the scene while he was working, coming dangerously close to him.
Luckily, two dump trucks stopped to block off the lane for Blount and he used both of the extinguishers on the trucks to try to douse the blaze, but still it continued to burn. By that point the fire on the tractor trailer was fully involved and he knew something needed be done soon.
"I decided I needed to get both of the drivers to safety and started on the tractor-trailer driver first," he said.
After he pulled the man to safety, he bashed in the passenger-side window of the utility truck in with his helmet and rescued the driver.
"As I was dragging the last driver out I could hear sirens coming," he said, noting that the entire incident lasted only five to seven minutes but "seemed like forever."
Remembering the Incident
Blount said he was not apprehensive when it was time to jump into action, but that he did have doubts. While attempting the rescue, Blount said he asked himself "What are you doing?"
"There were a couple times when I thought to myself that what I was doing was dangerous," he said.
Despite having his turnout gear on hand, he was spared the luxury of an SCBA, but said that although the heat was bad, he was OK without it. "The smoke really wasn't an issue," he said. "It was one of those situations that I knew I had to do what I had to do to get it done."
When asked if he's ever been involved in an incident such as this one he plainly said "No." Saying the extent of involvement on his part went beyond the countless number of vehicle fires he's responded to in the past.
"As far as having the ability to 'save,' it's just a great feeling," he said.
Looking back at the incident, Blount said it all took a while to set in. By the time he had returned home, numerous television stations had already covered the incident, labeling him as a hero.
"I'm no hero, by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "What I did was the same thing any firefighter across the county on an engine company would have done."
Days after the incident happened, he heard the Carnegie Hero Fund was looking into his rescue, but didn't know if anything would come of it.
"Whether I won or didn't win, it didn't matter. But now that I've been named to the award it's an honor," he said. "Some guys go their entire career, most of them, without getting the chance to be in a situation like this."
Despite the accolades he's received, Blount said it is his wife, Alicia, who is the real hero.
"She was of course really concerned when I told her what happened," he said. "I've spent my entire life in public safety and she's always had to live with the risks involved with the job."
Aside from being a long-time member of the fire service, Blount was also a member of the Chesapeake, Va. Police Department for 10 years.
During an interview with the Virginian-Pilot newspaper soon after the rescue, one of his three sons, Joey, 10, said that if it wasn't for his dad, the two men he saved wouldn't have lived.
"That's when the whole thing really began to sink in," he said.