How a ‘perfect storm’ of events led EMS providers to saving an unconscious driver from a burning vehicle
Paramedic Shea Lathrum and EMT Brandon Busch were returning from an out-of-county transport when they saw a car leave the roadway and catch fire
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“We have a single vehicle MVA that we just witnessed. I don’t have much more. We’re going to be heading that way.”
About an hour before calling this into dispatch, Taney County (Mo.) Ambulance District paramedic Shea Lathrum, who has been in EMS for nine years, and EMT Brandon Busch, a 10-year veteran with the agency, were transporting a patient with a serious head injury to a local hospital.
It had been a normal shift, which was a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of responding to COVID-related calls on previous shifts. It was approaching midnight when the two left the hospital and started their drive back to Branson. Thirty minutes into their drive, they caught a glimpse of a vehicle leaving the roadway.
Lathrum saw the front of the vehicle nose downward into what appeared to be a small ravine, followed by a plume of white smoke. Busch, who had to quickly process what he witnessed, reported the incident over the radio and informed dispatch that they were turning around to help.
Taking an access road through a tunnel, under the highway and then turning around, Lathrum and Busch saw the grass was on fire under the vehicle, along with some flames coming from the engine bay.
The driver had his head slumped over his chest and the steering wheel. He wasn’t moving.
After parking a safe distance ahead of the vehicle, Busch jumped out of the rig, grabbed his gloves and fire extinguisher, and ran down the hill toward the unresponsive driver.
By now, the front end of the car was up in flames. Lathrum heard a tire explode and then another. The fire was spreading rapidly and the clock was ticking to get the driver out of the vehicle.
Acting quickly to save the driver
To get to the driver safely, Busch started unloading his fire extinguisher on the hood to knock the flames back. “I didn’t want anything to start exploding and popping. It was starting to get really smoky,” Busch recalled.
Then, he moved underneath the vehicle where the flames were coming out and impeding access to the driver’s side door. “I sprayed under the door, which was when my extinguisher ran out. And, as I was doing that, I could see that the door was kind of shaking back and forth.”
That’s when Busch noticed the driver was awake and had started to frantically push on the door. “But because of the damage on the front driver’s side quarter panel, it had pushed back and made it so that the door wouldn’t open,” he said.
Lathrum aimed his extinguisher at the engine bay just ahead of the vehicle’s door, which kept the flames from the driver and Busch.
“The patient ended up getting a pretty good hit on the door, and, again, not really thinking of my safety, I just stuck my hand in between the door and the truck as it was closing and grabbed the door and pinned it open while grabbing the driver,” Busch said.
“Let’s get you out. Let’s get out, let’s get out,” Busch shouted repeatedly.
The fire was getting out of control, but Busch was able to grab the driver, pull him out of the truck and they began to climb the hill. Lathrum ran to the ambulance and retrieved the cot as Busch assisted the driver to the rig. Lathrum looked back after getting the cot and saw the vehicle was now fully engulfed in flames. Seconds later, the other two tires exploded.
“I thought we were parked a decent distance away, but there were actually pieces of melted rubber stuck to the back of the ambulance when we got back to the station,” Lathrum said.
Busch got on the radio and updated dispatch.
“Saddlebrook Medical, patient’s extricated in the back of the ambulance. Notify fire and police that the outside lanes are going to probably be closed. Vehicle is fully involved.”
Soon after, local responders arrived on scene and assessed the situation. Lathrum was in the back of the rig with the driver and Busch had taken over medical command.
“They were about to lift a helicopter and we were like, ‘We don’t need that stuff. He’s in the back of the ambulance. We just need a supervisor to get approval to transport,’” Busch said.
Lathrum and Busch, who were in a different county and technically weren’t the primary transport unit, were given permission to transport the patient by a supervisor. “He said, ‘Yeah, take off.’ So, we loaded up and headed to Springfield,” Busch said.
The patient, according to Lathrum, had no memory of the incident. He suffered minor facial trauma and retrograde amnesia.
“It was difficult to tell whether a medical condition caused him to lose consciousness and leave the roadway or if the trauma of the accident caused his unconsciousness, or a combination of the two,” Lathrum said. “All things considered, he faired quite well. By the time we arrived at the trauma center, his condition was stable.”
Amazingly, Lathrum and Busch didn’t suffer any injuries or burns. “I didn’t even singe the embedded dog hair that I had in my vest,” Busch joked. “We got very lucky.”
Right place, right time
The drive back from Springfield to Branson was quiet. Lathrum and Busch were still in shock and processing the incident.
“Adrenaline was still moving. You’re still pumping and absorbing what had occurred,” Busch said. “It was so surreal. As we were driving back, both of us looked at each other and said, ‘Did that just happen? Did we just make this up in our minds?’”
It was the first time Busch ever pulled a patient out of a burning vehicle: “The whole time, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Where’s the firefighter that’s supposed to be here with water?’”
As for Lathrum, it was the first time he had ever put himself in such a position: “In nine years of doing this, it’s the first time I have ever put myself in a position that I truly thought my well-being was in question.”
However, they stood in awe of each other both during and after the incident.
“I was impressed by Brandon and his bravery in running up to the vehicle as those tires were exploding,” Lathrum said.
They were in the right place at the right time, Busch said.
“It was a perfect storm if you will. Say that we were five miles north of where we were and rolled up on that, we would have never been able to get him out of that vehicle,” Busch said.
Without that perfect timing, the incident would have likely been a recovery instead of a save.
“There is definitely no question that a series of events led a crew in an ambulance witnessing this accident that quite likely would have been fatal if the timing were off by more than a minute or two,” Lathrum said.
This article was originally posted March 2, 2021. It has been updated.