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7 ‘Angels’ Honored for Going to Aid of Family Trapped in a Blazing Car

Times Staff Writer

For Wilfred Gassner, seven really is a lucky number.

The Long Beach man and his parents were trapped in a burning car on the San Diego Freeway after another driver rear-ended them. Seven men suddenly appeared, pulled them from the 1985 Buick Regal seconds before it burst into flames--and left as quickly as they came, Gassner said.

On Saturday, eight months after the Nov. 8 rescue, Gassner came face to face with his rescuers--men he called “angels"--during a recognition ceremony at the Santa Ana office of the California Highway Patrol. Capt. Chuck Lynd presented merit certificates to Dave Ruhlman of Fallbrook, Alan Pelton of Ramona and four Santee men: Lawrence Aguayo, Jim Herrick, Jim Kelly and Phil Ruis. (Ron Riddels of Santee was absent.)

“We often talk about how people don’t want to get involved, but seven people did . . . and saved the lives of three people,” Lynd said.

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Gassner then thanked “the extraordinary people who saved my life.”

Parents Still Recovering

“Each one of these people I owe my life to,” he said as he blushed and his eyes glazed. “It’s been almost eight months, and I’m still walking on egg shells.”

Gassner’s parents are still recovering from their injuries at their home in Pico Rivera.

That morning in November, the three were driving to La Jolla on the 405 Freeway. Near Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa, freeway traffic slowed. Gassner was going about 15 m.p.h. when a driver rear-ended his car at 60 m.p.h.

“All of a sudden the lights went out,” Gassner said. “I mean the lights went out . I didn’t even see the guy through the rear-view mirror.

“I had bought the car just for that a year earlier, so it wouldn’t fold up in an accident,” he said. “But it did fold up. We were trapped in it, and it started to fill with smoke. I saw people outside running around the car, then I saw these big boots kicking in the glass.

“These guys dragged us out, then they disappeared as quickly as they appeared,” he said.

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Navy Officer Saw Accident

Dave Ruhlman, a Navy officer stationed at Camp Pendleton, was driving north to Santa Barbara for a camping trip when he saw the accident.

“I was in the fast lane, and traffic was pretty well at a standstill,” he said. “A car got rear-ended in the southbound lane, and it skidded toward the divider and stopped. It was on fire.”

Ruhlman, 23, who would suffer first- and second-degree burns of the hands, said he “really didn’t think about” the danger as he jumped out of his pickup truck, climbed a fence dividing the highway and ran to the burning car.

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“I started trying to break the window out, but I couldn’t get in,” he said. “Then others arrived.”

The others were six men from Bible Missionary Fellowship Christian High School in Santee going to a football game against Liberty Christian School in Huntington Beach. Traveling north in the center lane several hundred yards away, bus driver Alan Pelton saw smoke rising.

“I could tell it just happened,” he said. “I moved to the left side of the road, got the fire extinguisher and jumped over the fence.”

Car Full of Smoke

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By then, Gassner’s car was full of smoke and almost completely on fire, said Kelly, a coach. “And we couldn’t even see if any of the people were in there, the car was so charred.”

Kelly said he told them to open the doors, but Gassner’s parents, Martin, 75, and Emma, 74, had passed out. Gassner, the driver, said his door was too hot to touch.

“I started kicking the passenger window,” Kelly said. “Pelton was hitting it with the fire extinguisher. It must have been one of those shatterproof windows, because we couldn’t break it. Then the third time we must have hit it together because it broke.”

He said the Gassners were in shock as they were dragged from the car one by one, first Wilfred Gassner, then his parents. Seconds after Emma Gassner was removed, the whole car went up in flames, Kelly said.

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Riddels, the team trainer and a Green Beret medic during the Vietnam War, administered first aid to the victims. Then they left when paramedics, firefighters and police officers arrived, Kelly said.

Gassner suffered several fractured ribs in the accident. His father suffered broken toes and temporary paralysis, but he can walk again.

His mother wasn’t as lucky. She suffered a concussion, broken pelvis and dislocated hips when she was thrown to the floor during the accident. She had three operations in the next 60 days at the Fountain Valley Regional Medical Center, Gassner said.

“It’s good to see people do good things,” he said. “We always drive past accidents and we always anticipate being late for our little appointments. We get mad at others for making us late while somebody’s over there on the side of the road dying.”

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