Mario King

Sgt. 1st Class Mario King (right) speaks to the media alongside his wife, Sgt. Adriane King, at a press conference in May weeks after he pulled a man from a burning truck. Master Sgt. Brian Hamilton/U.S. Army/Provided

At any moment, the overturned fuel truck could explode.

The driver didn't have enough time to brake when a car in front of him swerved left, and then right. 

The tractor-trailer carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline had flipped over, burst into flames and was blocking the intersection of Highways 150 and 70 in Rockcastle County, Kentucky.

The truck driver was trapped inside, and struggling to escape as the inferno around him intensified.

And time was running out.

The scene unfolded quickly in front of Army Sgt. 1st Class Mario King and his wife, Army Sgt. Adriane King, who had taken the two-lane highway as a detour on their drive home to Fort Knox from vacation.

After the crash, they pulled over and got out of the car. As his wife shouted to others to get back from the tanker, Mario King said one thought entered his mind: "If I was in that situation, I would want someone to help me."

"That took everything into perspective and blocked out any fears or concerns for myself," King, 36, said. "We're going to do whatever it takes to get that guy out of the truck."

So King ran toward the blazing truck, crawled into the cab and dragged the driver out of the vehicle as the flames jumped higher and the black smoke billowed into the sky.The truck was engulfed in flames. 

"In the Army, we are taught to never leave a fallen comrade, not just on the battlefield, but anywhere in life," he said.

After relaying the story of the day he saved a man's life, the North Charleston native refused to describe himself as a hero. 

King insisted that word belongs to people like his father, James Gourdine Sr., who was a firefighter in North Charleston and served in the Navy. It's a term, he said, that applies to men like his grandfather, who fought in the Korean War as a Marine.

But the Army has decided the word "hero" belongs to King, too.

On Sept. 7, King will be awarded The Soldier's Medal for his act of bravery. It is the single highest peacetime award for heroism that the Secretary of the Army can bestow on a soldier. It is an honor that has been bestowed on the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

It's an honor King never envisioned.

King joined the Army when he was 19. The lifelong Gamecocks fan said he had wanted to attend the University of South Carolina, but when it didn't work out, he refused to do nothing. While a student at Stall High School, King had been a wide receiver on the football team. The military, he figured, would be his next team.

Today, he is a career counselor with Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox.

Master Sgt. Josh Miles, who is a senior career manager in the Signal Branch and King's supervisor, described King as someone with "impeccable character." 

"He is constantly helping others around the office, so to hear of him helping a stranger in need was no surprise," Miles said of King's act of bravery.

King will be the first soldier at Fort Knox to receive the accolade, but for him the ceremony will be especially meaningful.

Not only will it be the first time that King will get to meet the driver he saved, it will also be the first time that his parents, who now live in Goose Creek, get to see their son in a military ceremony.

"For the first time in 17 years they will get to witness me as a soldier," he said. "I'm not nervous. I'm just honored."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.