By Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press
HANCOCK COUNTY, Miss. — When a sport utility vehicle ran off a rural stretch of interstate and slammed into pine trees in Mississippi, nearly two dozen people rushed to help two sisters who were trapped inside the burning vehicle.
Among them was AP photographer Gerald Herbert, who was on his on his way to Biloxi for an assignment. Herbert arrived just after good Samaritans were able to pull the passenger, 39-year-old Felicidad De Monte, from the SUV, along with her wheelchair. Her younger sister, Giovanna De Monte, was still inside.
In his own words, here is what Herbert and others did to help her:
“The car was on fire in the engine compartment and the fire was increasing, getting to the point where it was fully involved.
“She was crying and screaming for help and nobody could help. People were yelling ‘fire extinguishers’ so I ran out on to the highway where all that traffic had stopped. I was running between all the stopped cars, looking for 18-wheelers because I know they carry fire extinguishers.
“I wound up running probably a ½-mile to ¾-mile, jumping onto the cabs of all of these 18-wheelers, telling them a woman was burning to death in a car, and to please get up there with their fire extinguishers.
“I directed them onto the emergency lane. In time, I got about six tractor-trailers going down the breakdown lane. They all got out and started putting the fire out.
“Simultaneously, a cement mixer had shown up and he had a hose, and he probably made the biggest difference because I’m told that while I was marshaling the trucks to get their fire extinguishers up there, the flames were coming through the engine wall. He put his hose on her and he doused her and made sure the flames didn’t get on her.
“It was a really horrific feeling to hear her screaming and seeing those flames grow so high and get so close. You knew she was going to perish and there was nothing you could do about it. It sent this horrible chill through your spine.
“Ultimately, the flames got knocked down. Someone hooked a cable to the car and a pickup truck pulled the car out of the trees. At this point, they were able to pry the door open and get her out as the fire was finally extinguished.
“It never occurred to me to go into journalist mode until the fire was knocked down. I knew she was safe so I went and got the cameras. The car accident is not news to the AP, but this clearly was an amazing heroic effort by all these people and I wanted to document it.
“I was so humbled. It was just amazing to be with this group of people, and to see what they did. It was just unbelievable. It turned out to be a beautiful day instead of a tragic day. Afterward, there were a lot of congratulatory handshakes and back slapping.
“It was really powerful to see all these people saving someone from dying. It was amazing.”
The De Montes were still in the hospital Friday. Giovanna De Monte was in critical condition and her sister was in good condition.