A 57-year-old wrestling coach hauled a 34-year-old Warrenville man out of a burning car Saturday on Aurora’s East Side, an act police said saved the younger man’s life.
“Now that I think about it, maybe it was a little crazy,” said Jose E. Martinez, a lifelong Auroran. “You could see the fire.”
Anselmo Baca-Vazquez was charged with drunken driving and traffic offenses after his car struck a concrete support piece and caught fire about 12:12 a.m. Saturday on the 1600 block of East New York Street in Aurora, according to police.
As the first officers drove up, their in-car camera caught Martinez pulling Baca-Vazquez out of the car while flames and smoke filled the air. Another Aurora man, 29-year-old Devin Johnson, dragged Baca-Vazquez farther away from the car as it continued to burn, the video shows. The two men didn’t know each other before, Martinez said.
“I was just thinking it might explode – which it actually did,” Johnson said. “Stuff flew up in the air.”
The explosion was smaller than he’d expected and came a few minutes after the rescue, when everyone was a safe distance away – probably at least 30 yards, Johnson said.
“Pretty much we were all like, ‘it’s gonna explode,'” Johnson said.
Martinez said he and his wife had just returned home from a night out to dinner when they heard the crash, which sounded like a bang.
He opened the door, looked across the street and saw a car on fire.
Rushing over, Martinez said he met a woman who said the burning car had just rear-ended her and asked him to get the driver out.
He couldn’t get the driver’s door to open, but the passenger door was unlocked. Martinez saw the man slouched over, unconscious but breathing. He said he wasn’t scared. He saw only one option.
“You couldn’t leave him there,” Martinez said.
Police and firefighters got there within minutes, and as they took over, Martinez backed off, he said.
“I realized how much teamwork means,” Martinez said. “They were just incredible. Everybody knew what to do. It was like a scene in the movies.”
In the video, the squad car stops and officers can be seen running toward the crash.
“He the only one in the car?” one asks. One of the men tells the officers he’s the only one they knew of. Police check the car, and don’t find anyone else.
“To say Jose (Martinez’s) actions were heroic and brave (is) an understatement,” the Aurora Police Department said in a statement on Facebook. “Had he not taken immediate action, the driver would not have lived.”
Police also commended Johnson for making sure the man was a safe distance away from the burning car.
Johnson said he was driving west on New York Street with a woman he’s dating when he noticed a car going the opposite direction had its lights out. As the cars approached each other, becoming parallel, the car without its lights on veered and struck the cement head-on, Johnson said. He looked in his mirrors and saw a huge puff of smoke.
“I should call 911,” he recalled saying out loud. Then he called. As he started answering the dispatcher’s questions, he realized he should turn around and quickly made a u-turn, he said. Less than a minute had passed by the time he got back to the other car, and already the driver’s side was engulfed in flames, he said.
“It was just human nature taking over,” Johnson said. “If you see someone in trouble, you go help them.”
Baca-Vazquez, whose injuries included burns but were not believed to be life-threatening, was taken to a suburban Chicago hospital, police said.
Baca-Vazquez had rear-ended a car driven by a 34-year-old Plainfield woman at the intersection of New York Street and Farnsworth, left the scene, and a few minutes later, “got into the crash where his vehicle burst into flames,” Aurora Police Department spokesman Dan Ferrelli said.
The man drove into a concrete support for a drainage pipe, which caused his car to catch fire, Ferrelli said.
The Plainfield woman was not injured, and followed the other car until it crashed again, Ferrelli said.
Martinez said he’s glad he could help, and hopes the stranger is OK, but thinks anyone would have done the same thing. Johnson, who works at a greenhouse in Montgomery, said he was thankful both men were in the right place at the right time, but also doesn’t feel like he did anything special.
For work, Martinez said he coaches wrestling – he runs a youth gym in Sheridan v – and cuts down trees. Describing Saturday’s events as “unreal,” Martinez said he never thought he’d be in that situation, and insists he’s not really in good shape anymore.
“I think that adrenaline just kicked in, to be honest,” he said.
Kane County Court records show Baca-Vazquez was charged with two counts of misdemeanor drunken driving and cited for driving too fast for conditions, driving without insurance, improper lane usage and driving without lights on. Filed Tuesday, the charges indicate his blood alcohol content was .08 or more and it was his first or second offense. He’s next due in court April 16.
Freelance reporter Erika Wurst contributed.
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