Seasonal harbor worker rescues two from burning van
As seen in The Cape Cod Chronicle
Article and photo by Alan Pollock
CHATHAM — Christopher Woods, 21, has plenty to learn before he begins his planned career in naval aviation. But he's already got one thing going for him: he knows how to keep his head in an emergency.
A rising senior at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., Woods is a summer resident of Chatham and a seasonal employee of the harbormaster's department. His grandparents, James and Barbara Woods, are summer residents in Chatham. On March 2, Cadet Woods was driving home to Atlanta on I-26 to catch his sister's soccer game when he saw a chilling sight.
“I looked up and saw a van and an Airstream [trailer] start to roll over,” he said. Woods pulled his pickup to the side of the road and approached the accident to help. He asked a bystander if everyone was out of the wreck.“
He said, no, there's two people inside,” Woods recalled. He peered through the front windshield and saw an elderly man in the driver's seat, with a woman behind him. The safest approach, he thought, would be to wait for rescuers to arrive. “You don't want to move people. You don't know what kind of injuries they have,” Woods said. But then another bystander yelled that the van was on fire.
He peered down and saw a small flame beginning to lick at the underside of the van, which was resting on the driver's side door. Knowing it was time to get the people out, Woods ran to his truck and grabbed his emergency kit, which includes a knife. While he learned some emergency skills working with the harbormaster's department, Woods is also an Eagle Scout, which involved a variety of first aid training.
He used the handle of the knife to break the van's rear windows, but found that the couple's belongings had shifted to the back of the vehicle during the crash, leaving him no access. Woods climbed to the passenger's side door and found it jammed shut, but was relieved to find that the rear passenger's door opened easily.
He entered the vehicle and lifted the elderly woman out, where other bystanders took her and moved her away. Fire was now climbing up the back of the van.
“I started to get a little worried,” Woods said. Some of the bystanders warned him to leave the wreck, but he wasn't about to leave the driver to die.“If this man is going to pass, the last thing he's going to see is me trying to help him,” Woods said. The driver was not pinned, but he was large and difficult to move. With help from others, including an off-duty firefighter, Woods got the man out of his seat and out of the rear passenger's door. They carried him safety away from the wreck, and then took a moment to look back.
“Smoke was coming out of the windows where we just were,” he recalled. “It was very, very fast.” The rescue was complete, and the van was engulfed, by the time firefighters arrived.
While Woods was ready to simply put the adventure behind him, some people at the scene had taken his name and took note of the “Citadel” sticker on his truck, using the information to track him down. The accident victims suffered only minor injuries, and sent Woods a note of thanks along with a check – which he returned. But officials at The Citadel learned of Woods' heroism thanks to a letter from a witness to the accident, and awarded him the military college's Medal of Valor, only the ninth or tenth time the award has been given in its 175-year history.
The honor was extremely meaningful, Woods said. Among the many people present for the medal ceremony were servicemen who were also Medal of Valor honorees for their heroism under fire.
“And they're up clapping for me,” Woods said.
The publicity surrounding the event is something Woods never sought out, and he's taking plenty of good-natured ribbing from his colleagues at the harbormaster department, some of whom have taken to calling him “Holly-Woods.”
But in the end, the decision to help wasn't really a decision at all, he said. If he had been the one trapped in a fiery wreck, Woods said he hopes someone would come to his aid.
“To me, it's just my job,” he said.