A pickup truck is engulfed in flames on Nov. 17 on Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Valley
A pickup truck is engulfed in flames on Nov. 17 on Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Valley. Several motorists stopped and put their lives at risk to help the trapped driver, a Goleta man. Credit: Chris Clarke photo

Vehicle fires are notorious for their intensity. A flicker of fire under the hood after a crash can quickly evolve into a conflagration, engulfing a car or truck in raging flames.

That was on Chris Clarke’s mind the night of Nov. 17, when he came upon a smoldering crash scene on Highway 154 near Paradise Road in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Clarke was driving to his Santa Ynez home from his job as an engineer at a small firm in Goleta — SAFE Laboratories — that coincidentally investigates and studies vehicle crashes for litigation.

“It felt so much like some of the noteworthy cases I’d read about at work,” Clarke told Noozhawk. “I saw the vehicle on the side of the road, and could see there was a small fire under the hood.

“It reminded me that if anybody was in there, it was only going to be a matter of minutes before the fire engulfed the whole vehicle.”

In short order, that fearful possibility would become a reality.

The crash occurred at about 6:30 p.m. as David Rosales Medina, 44, of Goleta was headed west on the rural highway in a white 2001 Ford F-150, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Jonathan Gutierrez.

Chris Clarke suffered burns on his arms and smoke inhalation while trying to rescue the driver of a burning pickup truck on Highway 154.
Chris Clarke suffered burns on his arms and smoke inhalation while trying to rescue the driver of a burning pickup truck on Highway 154. Credit: KEYT News photo

Medina’s truck drifted off the road, Gutierrez said, then struck an embankment, veered left across the eastbound lanes and rolled twice before coming to rest on its side.

Medina was still in the smoldering vehicle when Clarke arrived on the scene. Clarke wasn’t the only one.

Avrey Parsons-Field, a 39-year-old marine biologist at UCSB, was headed home from work when he drove up on the crash scene, as was Alex Garcia, 30, a chef at the Boathouse Restaurant.

Rebecca Neal, 43, who has been living in her aging Honda Civic with her dog, Bella, had cruised over San Marcos Pass in search of a place to spend the night when she saw cars stopping in front of her, near the vista point parking lot.

“I saw the truck on fire,” Neal told Noozhawk, “and I looked at my dog. Then I jumped out of the car and tried to assess what was going on.”

Rebecca Neal, with her dog, Bella
Rebecca Neal, with her dog, Bella, was among those who stopped to aid the driver of a pickup truck that crashed and caught fire on Highway 154 near Paradise Road. Credit: GoFundMe photo

She observed two or three men struggling to free Medina from the cab of the crumpled truck, and could see that the flames were growing.

“It was just getting worse by the second,” Neal recalled, “and I just thought we’ve got to get this guy out of there.”

She barked orders at the others to do something to save the man.

“The first thing that went through my mind is, we’re going to pull this guy out, and everything is going to be fine,” Garcia recalled. “We could physically get up to him; none of the cab was on fire at that time.”

What Garcia, Clarke and other rescuers didn’t yet know was that Medina’s legs were pinned somewhere under the dashboard. Getting him out ahead of the flames was going to be a daunting challenge.

Alex Garcia, with his wife, Clarissa.
Alex Garcia, with his wife, Clarissa, was among those trying to rescue the driver of the burning pickup truck. Credit: Contributed photo

When Clarke first approached the pickup truck, he could see that Medina was holding a knife, apparently intent on cutting the seatbelt to free himself.

“He says, ‘Get me out of here,’ and I realized, my goodness, this guy’s trapped,” Clarke said.

“Careful with that knife,” Clarke told Medina, then reached down and unclipped the man’s seatbelt, which allowed Medina to move more freely.

The men tried several times to hoist Medina through the windshield, which had been knocked out by the crash, but they could only get him part way out.

“It was logistically difficult, because the truck was on its side, and we were trying to pull him up and over the steering wheel through the windshield,” Parsons-Field said. “We got as far as his waist to the steering wheel, but he wouldn’t budge further.

“It was very obvious as we pulled on his shoulders that something below the steering wheel was stuck.”

All the while, the flames were growing and the heat was increasing in intensity. The would-be rescuers all sensed that they were in a race against time, one they were close to losing.

Other bystanders attempted to help, using small fire extinguishers to knock down the flames, but those efforts were no match for the growing fire.

Neal ran back to her car to fetch a case of water bottles that she recently had picked up, and started throwing them toward the vehicle. She also tried throwing wet soil from the side of the road on the flames, but “I realized what I was doing was pretty futile,” she recalled.

Eventually, the passenger seat caught on fire, Parsons-Field recalled, “with flames rolling out through the windshield.”

“All three of us were there trying different things,” he said. “We just reached a point where we had to back off. That was the hardest part.”

It was an agonizing decision, Garcia said.

“The man started screaming, his legs were burning, but we couldn’t get within 10 feet because the fire was so intense,” Garcia said. “We were expecting him to burn alive at this point. I turned around … I didn’t want to see that.”

Clarke added: “I really wanted to get him out before it got to that point. I felt totally helpless and powerless.”

Then, with hope waning, something totally unexpected happened.

Tim Thorpe shows his soiled hands after helping to rescue the driver of a pickup truck that crashed and caught fire on Highway 154 near Paradise Road.
Tim Thorpe shows his soiled hands after helping to rescue the driver of a pickup truck that crashed and caught fire on Highway 154 near Paradise Road. Credit: Mike Ruiz photo via KEYT News

“The victim is starting to scream … and then I hear someone yell, ‘He’s out,’” Parsons-Field said.

With mere seconds to spare, Medina somehow had freed himself — speculation is his shoes had burned off or the dashboard had been consumed by fire — and flopped through the windshield and onto the ground.

“He pushed himself out,” Neal remembered. “He didn’t stop fighting.”

Immediately, the group of Good Samaritans — including Tim Thorpe of Antelope Valley — ran to him. They began dousing the flames on Medina’s lower body using towels and water.

Two of the men picked up Medina by his shoulders, another grabbed his legs, and they moved him to a safer location about 50 feet away from the inferno.

While waiting for emergency personnel to arrive, Neal stayed by Medina’s side, holding his hand and coaxing him to stay conscious as he appeared to be going into shock.

Medina — who the CHP said suffered major burns to his legs, arms and back, and lacerations to his face — was treated at the scene by firefighters and paramedics, then taken by AMR ambulance to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

(Despite repeated attempts, Noozhawk has been unable to determine the extent of Medina’s injuries, where he is being treated or his current condition.)

In the aftermath, his rescuers have been left to deal with the physical and mental impacts of the ordeal, but all appear to be on the mend.

Clarke sustained burns to his arms and suffered smoke inhalation. Parsons-Field had a cut on his wrist, and he, Neal and Garcia also suffered smoke inhalation. They were treated at local hospitals.

Parsons-Field said the incident has stayed with him.

“I can’t get it out of my mind. … I think when we first showed up, it all played out in my mind. … We made it in time, we’re just going to pull him out and it will be over.”

A GoFundMe account has been set up for Neal, a Santa Barbara native who has been down on her luck. As of Wednesday, it had raised $19,805.

Neal said she hopes to use the money to buy a more suitable vehicle for herself and Bella, noting that her Civic is on its last legs.

More than a week after the incident, Clarke told Noozhawk that he “was pretty shaken up for a couple of days,” but found solace in the experience.

“It was really cool to see so many complete strangers stopping to see what they could do,” he said. “It was pretty neat.”