If events had transpired just a few seconds differently, it could have been Glenwood resident James Dean who was involved in a head-on collision on State Route 14. Instead, Dean, 59, witnessed the wreck and was literally a savior for a Stevenson woman who had been seriously injured in the accident.
Dean, owner of James Dean Construction, Inc., was driving westbound just behind one of two vehicles involved in a violent crash about two miles east of Stevenson on Aug. 13.
The accident, between a Jeep and a Chevy van, happened at about 7:10 a.m.
According to the report from the Washington State Patrol (WSP), Laurel Hick, 36, of Stevenson was driving her 1993 Chevrolet van east on SR 14 when it crossed the centerline and collided with a westbound 2006 Jeep SUV driven by David Storby, 56, of The Dalles. After the crash, the van caught fire and erupted into flames, with Hick still inside.
That's where Dean stepped in. He said he was driving westbound behind the Jeep as it went around a corner.
"I was about 10 car lengths behind," he recalled. "I didn't see the impact, but I saw a cloud of dust and saw the Jeep fly up into the air."
Dean flagged down a car coming from behind him so it didn't plow into his vehicle or into the wreckage ahead. Then, with the traffic stopped, Dean went to the wreck scene to try to help.
"I went to the Jeep first to see what I could do. The driver was in a lot of pain," Dean said.
Dean figured it was best to leave the driver where he was until emergency responders arrived. He didn't have that luxury with the van, however.
Dean went to the van, but couldn't see inside.
"I don't know if the windows were tinted or if it was full of smoke, but I couldn't see anyone," he explained. "There was a fire under the van, and I was frantically looking for something to put the fire out with."
Dean said the collision had jammed both doors on the van, and he couldn't open them.
"About that time, the driver started screaming for help to get out, and by then the van was pretty well engulfed," Dean said. "I went around to the side and decided I had only one chance. There was so much fire in there I couldn't imagine someone was even screaming. I kicked at the driver's door window, but the first time it didn't break. But after another kick or two the window shattered and I got ahold of her. I pulled on her one time, but was overcome with smoke and had to get back to get some air. I went back and pulled on her a couple times, and finally got her out of the window. Another guy helped me get her farther away from the vehicle."
Dean added that if her seat belt had still been clicked on when he tried to get her out of there, that might have sealed her fate.
"I was hoping her seat belt wasn't around her, because I knew I couldn't get her out if it was. I couldn't have reached in to free the belt; there was fire coming out of the window and all around her," Dean said. "I couldn't have gotten to it."
Dean said she was conscious and screaming about her kids -- and at the time no one knew whether there were others inside the van or not.
Later, WSP officials reported that just minutes before the accident happened, the woman had dropped off her two young children at a day care facility in Stevenson, thus dodging what would have been a ghastly tragedy.
"It was like she thought they were still in there, and there wasn't a thing we could do. I was sure glad to find out no one else was in there," Dean said later.
Hick, who was the most severely injured, was airlifted to Emanuel Hospital in Portland and was listed in critical condition with burns over 30 percent of her body, a broken back, and internal injuries.
Storby also was airlifted to Emanuel Hospital. He suffered from multiple fractures to both of his legs, as well as internal injuries.
Washington State Patrol Trooper Bill Clack said Dean saved Hick's life, and pointed out that the rescuer suffered serious burns when he pulled her from the burning van.
"It was a heck of a deed he did. He stepped up to the plate," Clack said.
Dean suffered first- and second-degree burns to his hands and arms, and was taken to Skyline Hospital -- and later to the Emanuel Hospital Burn Center in Portland -- for treatment.
For several hours after the collision, Washington State Patrol investigators closed SR 14 to one lane only, with flaggers and a pilot car slowly guiding traffic past the wreck scene.
Dean, who served as a volunteer for the Glenwood Fire Department in the 1990s, said his training as a firefighter helped him evaluate the risks he was facing as he tried to help Hick.
"That training gives you a chance to make a better response to some things," Dean explained. "Those training sessions gave me just some idea, some prior knowledge of what to do. I decided the van wasn't going to blow up, and you have a minute or two to make your best effort."
During his rescue efforts, Dean said he realized he was being burned, but he was not about to give up.
"If you hear someone screaming for her life, you're going to make an effort if you can," Dean said. "I had just one chance, and luckily it worked out well. The woman needs a lot of credit, too. If she was not fighting to get out, it wouldn't have happened."
Dean said he is not in much pain for now, but the healing process will take some time.
"Only one arm is really very bad, and I have bandages up to my elbow. The other arm just has some blisters. But I'm supposed to be healed in about three weeks," he said.
Dean said he has talked with Hick's husband.
"He said she had had surgery and they were optimistic. She is doing better than they expected, but is still critical," he pointed out. "It's good to know she seems to be doing OK, but she's not out of the woods yet. It will be another week to 10 days."
On Tuesday, officials at Emanuel Hospital's Burn Center in Portland said Hick remained in critical condition.
The cause of the collision remains under investigation by WSP officials. Investigators reported that they are looking at mechanical components of the van for possible equipment failure, and pointed out that alcohol was not a factor in the crash.