Chasing Hope

About a mile down the road, paramedic John McIntosh said goodbye to the rescue helicopter crew and the firefighters, then pointed the ambulance toward Austin. His partner rode in back, helping their patient, a woman who had crashed her car into a telephone pole.

It was 4:22 a.m., already a warm morning. This should have been the drowsy paramedics' last run of the night.

McIntosh, a 34-year-old former U.S. Army medic, drove for about a mile on RM 2222, passing the 3M research center on a dark stretch of road lined with cedar trees and few streetlights.

As he rounded a gentle curve, McIntosh jammed on the brakes. Up ahead, a burst of yellowish-orange flame shot into the dark sky. Two wrecked cars were splayed across the eastbound lanes, facing each other like the sides of a "V."

As he slowed down, McIntosh spotted a teen-ager in the road, standing in the ambulance's path, holding a cell phone and waving his arms frantically.

Reggie Stephey looked wide-eyed and lost. He had just called 911.

The front of Reggie's Yukon was smashed, but the vehicle had suffered little other damage. Thanks to the air bag, Reggie walked away with only a red seat-belt mark across his chest.

"Hey, I've got an emergency," Reggie told the 911 operator, but he couldn't remember what road he was on. He had walked to the other car, where he saw a small flame and heard gurgling from the front seat.

The front of Natalia's Oldsmobile was twisted and crumpled like an accordion. Broken glass covered the road.

In the front seat, Jacqui struggled to free herself. She was pinned between the dashboard and the seat.

Flames from the engine were starting to creep toward her face.

Next to her, Natalia was dead, crushed against the steering wheel.

In back, on the floorboard behind the driver's seat, Laura lay curled in a ball, also dead. The two other back-seat passengers, Venezuelans Johanna and Johan, were dazed and injured.

McIntosh stopped the ambulance and rolled down the window.

"Is there anybody in the vehicle?"

"Not in the Yukon," Reggie said. "In the little car. There's a fire."

Wait across the road, McIntosh told him. The paramedic pulled past the wreck.

"This is Rescue 16; I just drove up on a car fire," he barked into the radio. "I think there are people inside."

McIntosh snapped on the emergency lights and ran to open the ambulance's rear doors.

"I think there's people in there," McIntosh yelled to his partner, yanking the red fire extinguisher off the wall.

From inside the ambulance, Bryan Fitzpatrick, a 29-year-old career paramedic, looked out at the flames.

Fitzpatrick trains other paramedics in water rescue — plucking people from lakes and rivers. He had never been in a situation like this. He and his partner had been trained to treat people, not pull them from burning cars.

Fitzpatrick went for the radio. McIntosh, extinguisher in hand, dashed to the Yukon. He checked that the car was empty, then ran to the Oldsmobile.

The flames, rising from the engine compartment, were creeping across the dashboard.

He aimed the extinguisher's nozzle at the fire and squeezed a steady blast of white fog. In seconds, the tall flames fell. McIntosh kept squeezing until the car went dark. He set down the extinguisher and peered into the engine compartment.

Deep in the white cloud, a small flame glowed brightly.

McIntosh quickly surveyed the car. Johanna sat by the back right door, her forehead covered in blood. Johan was on the center hump. Silent and stunned, both watched the paramedic.

McIntosh had seen grisly crashes before. Once, in the Army, he had watched helplessly as a trapped pilot tried to escape a burning helicopter. Wounded soldiers lay dying on the ground; no one had the medical gear to save them.

He grasped the rear driver's-side door handle. The door popped open without a squeak.

He clasped Johan and tugged the 200-pound Venezuelan backward out of the car. Panting, McIntosh glanced at the engine.

The flames were back, inching just above the dash.

I've got to hurry, he thought.

Back at the ambulance, his partner, Fitzpatrick, worked the radio. He called the firefighters from the first accident, hoping they were still nearby. He reached them as they were pulling away.

Overhead, the STAR Flight helicopter already was circling. The crew had spotted the fire and radioed Fitzpatrick.

We may need you, the paramedic said. Find a place to land.

Fitzpatrick grabbed his fire protection coat and ran.

He saw McIntosh dragging Johan across the road.

Oh, my God, Fitzpatrick thought, there are people in this car.

Fitzpatrick ran for his medical gear.

McIntosh finished dragging Johan — "Ouch," the Venezuelan said as his foot scraped the road — then sprinted back to the Oldsmobile. The girl, Johanna, was still staring at him. He pulled her across the seat and began dragging her across the road.

The flames were climbing.

There's not much time left, he thought.

As McIntosh dragged Johanna, his partner caught up. Together they carried her across the road.

"There's more people," McIntosh yelled, running.

The flames reached higher, licking over the dash.

Smoke was everywhere, whipped by the helicopter blades and lit by its powerful searchlight. The acrid smell of melting plastic burned in the paramedics' nostrils. McIntosh, out of breath, started coughing out smoke.

In the car, he tried pulling Laura off the floorboard, but her feet were wedged under the front seat. Fitzpatrick moved in closer to untangle her. As he worked, the image of his wife and baby flashed through his mind.

His son was about to take his first steps.

Am I going to leave my boy fatherless? he thought.

Laura's legs came loose. The paramedics pulled out her limp body.

Jacqui moaned. The flames were lapping into the passenger compartment. As they hauled Laura across the road, Fitzpatrick saw the Oldsmobile's cloth overhead interior catch fire.

On the side of the road, Fitzpatrick examined Laura as McIntosh raced back to Jacqui.

Jacqui looked straight at the approaching fire, screaming, crying, squirming to free herself.

McIntosh pressed the door handle. The door wouldn't budge.

He grabbed the red extinguisher off the ground, aimed and squeezed.

Nothing. He slammed the extinguisher down.

Jacqui screamed through the shattered window. McIntosh couldn't make out her words.

"I'm a paramedic. My name is John," he told her, panting. "I'm going to get you out; I'm not going to leave you here. I'm not going to leave you."

McIntosh pulled on the door with his bare hands, but it was stuck. He tried yanking the seat back from the flames, but it was jammed.

The flames edged closer to Jacqui's face. She pushed back, thrashing with her broken right arm for leverage.

McIntosh tore at the door, bending the metal window frame a few inches — enough to get his fingers in. The door still wouldn't move.

Jacqui rotated her face away from the flames. She couldn't twist far enough.

McIntosh looked down at her ear, her dark hair.

He felt like he was stuck in place, watching a tidal wave approach.

The flames licked at Jacqui's head. Sparks caught her hair. The fire rolled into the passenger compartment.

"John, let go," Fitzpatrick shouted. "You need to back up."

Flames shot from the windows, pushing McIntosh back, singeing his arm hair and leaving scorch marks on his shirt. He retreated, watching.

Jacqui flailed. Flames wrapped around her. Her nose and her ears were on fire. Clumps of burning hair fell away.

She started to wail.

The paramedics had never heard anything like it. It was so many sounds at once — suffering and despair, terror and hopelessness.

Absolute agony, Fitzpatrick thought. Then he started screaming, too.

"Oh my God, she's burning!"

Jacqui's wails seemed to go on forever.

A tow truck pulled up. Fitzpatrick sprinted over.

"I need your extinguisher now!" he yelled. He grabbed the tall, silver cylinder. Running back, he pulled out the pin, aimed and smashed down the handle.

Nothing. He looked at the dial. Empty.

The metal clanked as the extinguisher skated across the road.

The fire engine crested the hill. Fitzpatrick ran over, waving frantically.

A firefighter heard Jacqui's shrieks above the fire. He jumped out and pulled off a hose. Another started the water pumping. Fitzpatrick yanked a second hose loose and helped unwind it.

McIntosh snatched a pry bar off the truck. He tore at the seam of the burning door, bent the window frame and broke the door handle. Finally, in desperation, he swung the metal bar against the car.

Jacqui's wails stopped. She slumped over in the flames, her head drooping on her right arm.

The paramedics listened, not to the fire, but to her silence.

"Thank God she's dead," Fitzpatrick said.

A firefighter began flooding the car with water. Another firefighter trained a second hose on the car. In a few seconds, the flames died out.

Bright red spots still glowed on Jacqui's body. Gently, a firefighter doused her. Her body steamed.

Black, sooty water splashed McIntosh, still standing by the car.

I've got to take care of the living, he told himself, then sprinted past his partner.

"Fitz," he said, "she's dead."

Fitzpatrick needed to know for sure. He went to the Olds.

On the shoulder of the road, Johanna and Johan looked up at McIntosh. The paramedic placed his hands on Laura's lifeless body.

"She's DOS," McIntosh shouted to his partner. Dead on scene.

Fitzpatrick peered into the car. Every square inch looked burned. The seats were melted goop. He reached for Jacqui's wrist, then froze.

Across the road, McIntosh heard him yell.

"Oh my God, she's still alive."

Jacqui moved her head and whimpered.

Remnants of her hair, crisp and curled, clung to her skull. Her scalp was seared, her face indistinguishable. One eye looked burned open, the other burned shut. Her shirt was melted, and her skin was crusty, cracked.

She looked like a black silhouette.

Firetrucks, rescue workers and police arrived in a flood of lights and sirens. Firefighters tugged on the front seat, pulling Jacqui off the dash. A park ranger, Al Reyes, shone a light on Jacqui.

Do you want to speak in Spanish? he asked her.

"I want to die speaking English," Jacqui answered.

She asked about the other girls. Then she said:

"Am I going to die?"

"Honey, you're hurt pretty bad, but we're going to do the best we can," Reyes said. She'll never live, he told himself.

Firefighters pried the door open with the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic claw that works like a reverse set of pliers. The men wrapped gauze bandages on Jacqui's burns and tried to lift her, but she stuck to the seat. Gently, they peeled her off.

A firefighter held her hand, where the skin hung loose, sliding off.

Jacqui was crying. She appeared to slip in and out of consciousness.

The men wrapped Jacqui in a paper burn sheet, strapped her to a backboard and, in the dark, ran the board over to the waiting helicopter.

Nearby, Reggie was still talking to the 911 operator, Linda Garza. Sitting in the Austin police station, Garza watched information on the victims being posted on her computer screen: Two dead. One person trapped in a burning car. Her co-workers surrounded her, listening.

"Linda, am I going to be OK?" Reggie asked at one point.

"You're going to be fine," she said.

"I hope I haven't hurt anyone," he said moments later. During the conversation, Reggie mentioned his Yukon: "I loved that car," he said.

Throughout the call — Garza estimated it lasted 80 minutes, the longest of the 911 operator's career — Reggie blamed the wreck on the other driver, who he said crossed the median.

Almost three hours after the accident, Reggie's blood alcohol level tested at 0.13, well above the 0.08 legal limit for driving.

A patrol officer put him in the back of a police car. Reggie kept talking to the 911 operator.

"I need to go home," he said. "When can I go home?"

He asked Garza for permission to lie down, then closed his eyes and fell asleep.

At 4:51 a.m. STAR Flight lifted off.

Jacqui screamed during the short flight. The sound of the whooshing metal blades would stay with her. Later, dreaming morphine dreams in the hospital, she imagined her father flying to her rescue.

Neither McIntosh nor Fitzpatrick thought Jacqui would live.

Days later, the partners met for beers and tried to piece together what happened. Together, they reckoned the rescue — from first seeing the fire to when it was put out — took about eight minutes.

Jacqui, they agreed, burned intensely for about 45 seconds.