Fiery rescue: Heroic actions saved man from burning wreck

Good Samaritans pulled a man from a burning car in rural Colleton County this weekend. A local pastor who helped the driver out of the car recounted the critical moments that led to the rescue.

ROUND O -- Johnny Byrd pulled up to the rural Colleton County yard and shined his headlights into the pitch-black night to see if a thunderous "streak of light" his daughter had seen minutes before was indeed a wreck.

It took a moment, but the 48-year-old pastor soon realized his lights were reflecting off the bottom of a car resting on its passenger side.

The Honda had been traveling fast enough on Sydneys Road that it ran through the intersection of S.C. Highway 61, split a small live oak in half and then flipped over into a metal carport just after 9 p.m. Saturday, authorities said.

The driver was still trapped inside.

Byrd turned to his 25-year-old daughter, Morgan Blocker, and told her they were going to call 911 and wait. He didn't want to pull the man out and risk hurting him any further.

"As soon as I said that, it was like someone took a lighter and lit a fire in the back of the car," Byrd said.

It started as just a tiny flame, but both Byrd and Blocker could smell the gasoline in the cool night air and saw the fire gobbling it up. They had very little time.

Byrd searched for a water hose but couldn't find one in the darkness. He went to the driver's-side window and, thinking the man was unconscious or dead, reached deep inside the car and grabbed his hand. It moved.

Blocker flagged down a passing motorist, later identified as Mark Dawson. Dawson found a cooler nearby and dumped water on the flames without success. The fire was now spreading inside the car, licking at the driver's tennis shoes.

The trapped man began to scream.

"It was just an awful sound," Byrd said. "It was like he was standing in a lake of fire."

Byrd couldn't pull the man out, so he grabbed a piece of wood that was among the baseballs and gloves strewn about the wreck and smashed it against the Honda's sunroof until he exhausted himself.

"I fell to my knees," Byrd said. "I said, 'God give me strength or tell me what to do.' "

He scanned the ground and found a wooden, miniature baseball bat.

He doubted it would work but picked up the bat and swung at the sunroof again. The fire grew hotter. The tires blew out. The Clemson hat Byrd wore burst into flames. His daughter screamed for him to stop before both of them died.

"I hit it, sir, with everything I had."

The sunroof shattered. Byrd pulled the driver's head and arm through the tiny window. Dawson reached over and helped pull the man through to his waist but they couldn't pull him all the way through.

"It was like pulling a grown man through a coffee can," Byrd said.

What happened next was like one of those slow-motion scenes out of the movies where the heroes run to safety with an explosion at their heels, Byrd said.

The car exploded, and it was as if the force pushed the man through the window into their arms. They quickly dragged him away from the fire. Blocker rolled him on the ground to douse the flames that were melting his clothes and then cooled his skin with dirt.

Colleton County Fire and Rescue firefighters and paramedics arrived at the rural intersection, known to locals as Gruber's Crossroads, about 10 minutes after receiving the call, Director Barry McRoy said.

They extinguished the fire, treated the man for burns and fractures and called for area helicopters to take him to a hospital. None of the helicopters could fly because of the poor weather, so they took him by ambulance to the Colleton Medical Center. He later was taken to the Medical University Hospital and then to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta where he was listed in critical condition Monday.

"They definitely saved this man's life," McRoy said of Byrd, Blocker and Dawson.

The S.C. Highway Patrol charged the driver, Ronald Thompkins, 35, of Knowledge Drive in Ladson with driving under the influence and not wearing a seat belt, Cpl. Bob Beres said.

Thompkins' wife, Kim, said Monday night that her husband has mostly third-degree burns to about 15 percent of his body. In addition to the burns, which are on the right side of his body from where he was lying in the car, he has a fractured rib, three fractured vertebrae and a broken foot.

"He's expected to make a full recovery," she said. "He just has a long road ahead of him."

Thompkins said she didn't know enough about the details of the wreck to comment on the charges against her husband. "Right now we are focusing on Ronnie's health," she said.

Byrd and Blocker met with Kim Thompkins and their three children at the hospital.

The family lined up to thank and hug them for helping Ronnie. Kim told them that the small bat Byrd used to break the sunroof was a Father's Day present from their 8-year-old son.

Byrd was treated at the scene for second-degree burns to his hand and shoulder, but he declined a trip to the hospital, saying he's fine.

"I'm still sore from being hugged," Byrd said. "It's amazing that man is alive. God puts us in certain places. If it had been five more seconds, he'd be a dead man."

The pastor at Glory Bound Ministries insists he's not a hero.

"I'm not the hero. God is."

Reach Andy Paras at 937-5589, or