Jumping into jaws of fire

Officer Adam Yates.

If officer Scott Woodring’s first day on the job is any
indication of his department’s dedication, then California’s
drivers can rest assured they’re in safe hands.
If officer Scott Woodring’s first day on the job is any indication of his department’s dedication, then California’s drivers can rest assured they’re in safe hands.

Less than an hour into his first shift as a California Highway Patrol officer, Woodring and his field training officer, Adam Yates, pulled a man from a burning car, saving his life.

Woodring pulled into the parking lot of the CHP office on Renz Lane the morning of July 1, 2007, before dawn. Fresh out of the patrol’s academy, he had been introduced to Yates several days earlier and spent three administrative days familiarizing himself with Gilroy and his new duties.

“It was real low stress,” Yates said. “It was time to turn up the heat.”

At the time, Yates had no idea just how literal that phrase would become within the next hour.

Not your usual commute

At 6:38 a.m., CHP dispatch received a 911 call from Louis Soberanis, a pilot who was driving home to Camarillo from Sebastopol, where he had spent the weekend visiting his father. Hoping to beat Bay Area traffic, Soberanis left his father’s house about 3:30 that morning. After a couple hours on the road, Soberanis remembered how his wandering thoughts snapped back to the present as he passed Leavesley Road in Gilroy on southbound U.S. 101 and a Toyota that was driving two cars ahead of him veered suddenly off the road into a ditch, leaving only a cloud of dust and smoke in its wake.

“I immediately pulled over,” Soberanis said. “(The driver) was completely unconscious. He was crushed in his car.”

At that point, the car had not yet burst into flames but reeked of fuel. Soberanis immediately called 911, his first step toward saving the victim’s life.

Waiting for police to show up, Soberanis tried to pull the man out of the car when its hood erupted in flames. He called 911 again.

With few details to go on other than brief snippets of information – “unconscious,” “trapped,” “hurry” – Yates and Woodring sprang into action. Siren blaring, the officers sped north on 101 toward the column of smoke that snaked upward from the crash site.

As the officers raced past the crash on the opposite side of 101, Yates cautioned Woodring, “Prepare yourself for what you might see.”

Glimpsing the crash for the first time gave the two officers a decent idea of what they were in for, and the challenge didn’t look easy.

“You grab this, I’ll grab that,” Yates, 33, directed Woodring, gesturing to the fire extinguisher and medical supplies.

All the while, Yates was suppressing flashbacks from another vehicle crash he responded to that left one man dead. A year earlier, during his graveyard shift, Yates was called out to an accident where a man ran his car off the road into a tree not far from the July 1, 2007, accident. The man didn’t survive.

“When the call came in, it was all too familiar for me,” Yates said, determined to see a different outcome this time.

The officers took the Leavesley Road exit then hopped back on 101 heading south and pulled up behind the crumpled Toyota.

“Yates did a good job about getting me mentally prepared on our way to the accident,” Woodring said.

Without hesitation, the two men flew toward the Toyota’s burning frame.

“It was weird that I didn’t have a sense of fear and I don’t think Scott did either,” Yates said. “You just go into rescue mode.”

As they approached, they saw the driver sprawled unconscious in the driver’s seat, his legs pinned under the crushed and burning front dashboard.

“Time is not on our side,” Yates remembered thinking as he and Woodring sprinted toward the car. “We’ve got to get this guy out and we’ve got to get him out now.”

As Woodring, 29, reached through the broken driver’s side window – the crash had jammed the door shut – glass crunching under his heels, he cut the man’s seat belt off but realized he couldn’t pull the man to safety alone. On the other side of the car, Yates trained a fire extinguisher on the spreading flames with little effect.

“I remember thinking ‘This guy’s not gonna make it,'” Woodring said. “He was just kind of lying there.”

As the fire spread into the front seat, the officers could feel the heat singeing the hair on their forearms. Fumes of burning plastic, paint and tires clogged their noses. They hollered to Soberanis, who had backed off when the police arrived.

“Hey how about some help here?” one of the officers yelled, Soberanis remembered.

With Soberanis’ help, the officers pulled the man through the broken window to safety.

“We got that extra hand on him and that’s all we needed,” Yates said. “Without that witness, I can’t say for certain that we’d get him out.”

Two minutes later, the flames completely engulfed the car.

The driver had broken his legs, back and jaw and was barely responding at the time. An ambulance took him to Saint Louise Regional Hospital. Police believe he fell asleep at the wheel.

“It was the first time in my career I felt like, yep, we definitely, without a doubt, saved this guy’s life,” Yates said. “There was certainly a sense of victory.”

Beware the flames

Though Yates had responded to high stress situations before, and both men have since, the element of fire introduced an enemy that could not be tamed.

“I could not negotiate with that fire,” Yates said. “It was going to take that guy’s life.”

In the heat of the moment, the three men said they didn’t even think of the danger they faced.

“It didn’t even cross my mind,” Soberanis said. “I was running on adrenaline. I don’t look at it as anything special.”

Although it was the first time he had saved someone’s life, Soberanis was modest about his contribution.

“Many others would have done the same thing,” he said. “God forbid that if that ever happens to me, I just hope there is someone to pull me out.”

After making sure the driver was in good hands, Soberanis got back in his truck and headed home to his wife and children.

“I was expecting a nice, beautiful ride,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m just happy the guy survived as far as I know.”

Recognizing heroes

Though the victim, who was later identified as Jose Luis Cruz Guevara of Gilroy, never contacted the officers, he owes his life to them and Soberanis, said CHP Sgt. Steve Temple, who recommended Yates and Woodring for the Governor’s State Employee Medal of Valor. The medal, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger presented to 27 state employees Dec. 10, is awarded to people who demonstrate extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism to save the life of another. Since the award program’s inception in 1959, only 400 medals have been awarded.

“They’re both fine, young officers,” Temple said. “One of our primary goals is saving lives. They saved a life that day. Without them, Mr. Guevara would be dead. He would have burned alive in that car because he could not have gotten out on his own. They gave him another chance at life.”

A man who answered at the phone number that the CHP had on record for Guevara said he’d never heard of him.

Although officers take an oath to protect the community, running toward a blazing fire isn’t exactly in their job descriptions, Temple said.

“They went above and beyond the normal call of duty,” he said. “You’re told to protect yourself first. These guys set all that aside.”

Fellow Officer Jaime Rios said the two officers did something they didn’t have to do that day.

“If they would have let the car burn with the guy in there – nobody would have ever second guessed them because the car was on fire and it was an extreme danger to their lives,” Rios said.

Both officers have wives and families. Woodring has a baby girl on the way, due April 13. Yates and his wife of 12 years have three children – a 10-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old son, and an infant that they just welcomed into the family six months ago. Their families accompanied them to Sacramento where they received their medals.

“It’s an incredible honor,” Yates said.

From the time he was a child, Yates knew he wanted to be a police officer and, more specifically, a California Highway Patrol officer. When he was about 8 years old, his was riding in the family car with his mother when the car began to shake. They pulled over on the shoulder of Highway 152, coincidentally along the stretch of road Yates is responsible for patrolling today. A CHP officer noticed his mother in distress and stopped to help. Yates said he’ll never forget how the kind officer helped his mother and made sure they got home all right.

“I remember thinking, ‘Man, I like that guy,'” Yates said. “That’s what cops do. They’re not out there to shoot the bad guy. They go out there and help the public. When I do my job, I try to keep in mind that every 5-year-old kid was me 30 years ago.”

Yates and Woodring have since moved from the Gilroy CHP office – Woodring to Merced and Yates to Los Banos – to be closer to home. They keep in touch and Yates plans to pay Woodring a visit when the new baby comes.

Put to the ultimate test his first day on the job, Woodring emerged “looking like a 20-year veteran,” Yates boasted.

“We did what had to be done,” Woodring said. “I’m sure any officer would have done the same.”

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