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This is the gripping story of how one of our off-duty firefighters helped save a couple trapped in a fiery car on an icy bridge. Nick Weichel is a committed firefighter and paramedic, on duty, and off. PF&R is proud of him for always making a positive difference, wherever he is.
See video here:
by Pat Dooris, KGW reporter
ELSIE, Ore. -- A remarkable rescue took place on an icy Quartz Bridge along Highway 26 leading to the Oregon coast Tuesday. Eleven vehicles slammed into one another, some at highway speeds.
One of the cars belonged to Nick Weichal.
“I went to stop but I couldn’t because I'm on the bridge and its icy," he said. "And I just kept pumping the breaks trying to slow down as fast as I can.”
He was on his way home to the rural town of Elsie, 55 miles west of Portland, after a 48-hour shift as a Portland firefighter. His car hit a pickup but not hard. He felt relief.
“Absolutely. I knew I wasn’t hurt. I knew I didn’t hurt anybody else, at least not very badly,” said Weichal.
The relief was short lived.
"I knew I needed to start helping people," he said.
But unlike a fire call in the city, Weichal was on his own with no equipment or other crews to back him up. And in the instants after the crash other drivers were no help.
“I would say all of them were in shock. Nobody, nobody helped initially,” said Weichal.
He began checking vehicles and found a couple in their 70s, John and Jerrie Olson, trapped inside their pickup truck.
The doors were damaged in the crash and would not open. Suddenly, Weichal’s efforts to get the doors open took new urgency.
“I noticed that there's a fire starting in the engine compartment, which is really bad because they're stuck in there. So what I started doing is just prying on doors with everything that I could find. Mainly my hands and after going from one side to the next I figured the passenger side was going to be the easiest side to open.
So after maybe, a minute of trying it finally let loose and I was able to open it,” he said.
The firefighter pulled Jerrie Olson to safety. But her husband, John was stuck. Weichal knew he had to get inside the truck to help.
“The fire started out as softball sized. It was getting really big. And so I just, I climbed in there with him and started pulling on him. I told him, he's gotta help himself and he knew it. But the extent of his injuries made it so it was really difficult for him to help himself," said Weichal.
The dashboard and driver's door pushed in and down during the crash. Now they trapped the driver’s legs.
“And I just kept coaching him as I’m pulling on him. The whole time the fire's getting bigger and bigger to where the point its coming through the windshield and I’m in there with him trying to pull on him, pulling on his hands and his arms and trying to get up underneath his arm pits to get a good grasp,” Weichal said.
In his 11 years as a Portland firefighter, he’d never put his life on the line like this.
“Feeling the heat for sure,” Weichal said. "There were a couple times where I had to get back out of the vehicle to get a good breath of air and get my face out, basically of the flames and, but he couldn’t do that so I just had to keep going back," he said.
Weichal went back five times. As time slowed, the firefighter turned to his faith for help.
“I was asking God for some strength and I didn’t want to give up and I knew it was rapidly approaching where I wasn’t going to be able to help this guy any longer and that's when my prayers were answered and his leg was free,” he said.
On Wednesday, he was back at work, thankful to be surrounded by his gear and other firefighters. He’s also answering the question, why not stay away from the flames and say you did your best?
“Because I hadn’t. I hadn’t given it my best shot. I just needed to try. I don’t know how to explain it. I just, I couldn’t live with myself if I had given up earlier," he said.