A woman trapped and unconscious in a burning car on the Santa Ana Freeway was pulled from the window by an off-duty firefighter Thursday seconds before the gas tank exploded and the car was engulfed in fire.
Andre Raya, 36, was returning to his Laguna Hills home from a hectic 24-hour shift at the Los Angeles City Fire Department about 2 p.m. when a five-car collision ahead of him sent a sports car careening across three lanes. The sports car was broadsided and the driver was unconscious when her car finally stopped in the right lane, where it began to flicker in flames.
Raya drove to the burning Acura and pulled the woman out, just before it exploded and was incinerated.
The five-car collision snarled traffic for about four hours. Three people suffered minor injuries and were treated at Irvine Medical Center. The unconscious woman, Nadia Rezaiamiri, 31, of Costa Mesa, was listed in critical condition at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.
Had getting her out taken Raya another five to 10 seconds, fire officials said, she and possibly Raya would have died.
Raya, 36, who suffered minor burns to his arms and face, said he was just responding as any firefighter would have.
"It was just part of my instinct," he said later at home. "I've had training, and I knew what had to be done."
Raya said his wife had met him for breakfast with other family in Montebello, and that she was driving ahead of him out of sight when he saw the accident.
California Highway Patrol officials said Rezaiamiri and another driver simultaneously had tried to move into the same lane but swerved back into their respective lanes to avoid a collision.
In the attempt, Rezaiamiri lost control, spun around and faced oncoming traffic where a truck driver could not avoid crashing into her, witnesses told officials.
"From witness accounts, it looks like she was over-correcting the lane change," CHP Officer Jeff Perez said. "When she was facing traffic, she was braking and trying to regain control before she was broadsided on the right rear by the pickup."
The impact cracked the fuel tank of the Acura, which continued to spin and then rolled into the transition lane to the Laguna Freeway exit, where it stopped, Perez said.
"When I saw the ruptured fuel tank, I knew that car was going to be engulfed in flames," Raya said.
About five cars behind, Raya drove through the cloud of smoke created by the braking cars and made his way to the fiery Acura. He found the driver unconscious and wedged in by the passenger seat, which had curled toward her.
Both front doors were jammed so Raya cleared away the glass from the twisted passenger window and reached in the car.
Meanwhile, the flames grew, as the truck driver, Michael Chow, tried to extinguish them with a portable extinguisher.
"He really bought me time," Raya said of Chow.
But the blaze continued to rage and flames flashed at Raya three times, burning his mustache, eyebrows and the hair on his head and his forearms.
"At the third flash, it got my face and at that time I knew I had to get her out, and thought to myself, 'OK, I'm not going to stand here and watch her burn to death,' " Raya said.
Tugging at her clothes and limbs, he and others who had stopped to help finally pulled Rezaiamiri through the passenger window and began to give her first aid. At that moment, the flames consumed the car.
Fire officials quickly arrived on the scene and blocked all but two lanes for about four hours as they treated those injured and talked to witnesses.
Raya's wife, who had arrived home unaware of the accident behind her, worried.
"He had only two hours of sleep the night before, so I thought he must have fallen asleep at the wheel or something," Katie Raya said. "I'm always worried, but I'm also used to him responding to emergency situations. Even when we were dating, he would pull over and help people."
And when Andre Raya arrived home, Katie Raya ordered her husband to go to the barber.
"I said, 'Your hair!' It was like orange and burned and so was his mustache," she said, smiling.
"I needed to get a haircut anyway," Andre Raya said.
Raya said fighting fires and saving lives is part of his heritage. His father is a retired firefighter of 30 years and his older two brothers are firefighters for Los Angeles.
"This has definitely be a memorable Christmas," he said.
Orange County fire authorities will nominate Raya for the Medal of Valor, Orange County Fire Capt. Gary Stenberg said.