Off-duty firefighter recounts saving passengers from downed plane in Orange County

Avalon Fire Department Capt. John Meffert usually wears flip-flops and shorts when he’s not tackling fires.

And that’s exactly what the off-duty firefighter was wearing when he hit the road Friday morning for a much-needed vacation in Palm Springs.

But as the Rancho Santa Margarita resident drove south on the 405 Freeway near John Wayne Airport, he suddenly found himself facing a fiery disaster.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the wing of a twin-engine Cessna 310 aircraft scraped the top of his truck before it crash-landed and caught fire.

"I was in shock, like 'this thing just hit me,' " Meffert told reporters.

But the shock quickly wore off.

He approached the wreckage as flames enveloped the left side of the aircraft. A small section of the passenger’s side, however, appeared to have few flames.

Meffert, a 17-year veteran of the Avalon Fire Department, said he thought “if I don’t see movement, I am staying back because I don’t want to be a victim myself.”

But once he saw a woman’s head move in the passenger side of the aircraft, his firefighter instincts kicked in.

“If she can be there, then I can figure a way to be there myself,” he said.

He then quickly pulled the woman, and then her husband from the burning aircraft.

As Meffert tended to the husband, he said, two nurses came to the aid of the woman.

The couple were later rushed to a local trauma center.

After rescuing the couple, Meffert called his wife and told her, “I’m a little late, I just got hit by a plane.”

Meffert said he was thankful that “husband and wife are doing really well and hopefully everything turns out really well for them.”

Authorities called his actions heroic, although Meffert is reluctant to accept the title of hero.

“We need a world where we help out others,” he said. “I just happened to be there today.”

As for Meffert’s vacation, it’s still on. The trip, however, will probably be a slow crawl.

“I’m going to be stuck in traffic … just like everybody else,” he said.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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