WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A woman has her life, and two men will soon have medals honoring their bravery.
Jeff Johnson, of Winston-Salem, and Robert Lawson, of King, were among 17 people awarded the Carnegie Medal, the highest honor for civilian heroism in the United States and Canada.
On July 11, Johnson and Lawson were just strangers who traveled in two different cars down U.S. 52 in Winston-Salem.
As they both approached the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive exit, they both saw plumes of smoke begin to rise out of a small passenger car.
According to authorities, more than half a dozen vehicles, including an 18-wheeler, were involved in the same crash. Witnesses said that it appeared as if the 18-wheeler ran into the back of a small passenger car and pushed it several yards down the road. They described how it appeared to have ignited the car’s gas tank.
Flames quickly began to consume the car, but the driver, Susan Leonard, was unable to escape.
“All you saw were two hands and her screaming.” Johnson recalled.
Lawson, like Johnson, also saw the smoke as it rose from the car.
“I could hear her screaming, ‘I don’t want to die in this car,’” he said.
The two men pulled their vehicles to the side of the road and raced to the burning vehicle.
They, along with two other unknown men, began to pull her out.
Lawson reached for the door handle, but stumbled backwards when the handle ripped off. “It was just hot.”
The four men were in a race against the clock. The flames were slowly inching toward them, being fueled by everything it touched.
“Literally those flames were licking over her shoulders,” Johnson remembered, as he reflected on those seconds.
By the grace of God, they freed the woman from her vehicle. Less than minute later, the car was engulfed by the flames that had spread. For Lawson, he knew that there was a serious danger to this rescue.
“The whole time your adrenaline is pumping, and you’re thinking ‘at any minute this thing can explode,’” he said.
First responders arrived on scene shortly after and carried the woman to the hospital. Two of her four heroes told FOX8 that she looked to be seriously burned.
The four of them quickly exchanged handshakes and went their separate ways.
They said they didn’t feel like heroes and were just doing what every person should have done.
“It’s a reminder that there’s hope for humanity. For us to not know this individual — to go in there and face danger and pull somebody out of a fiery car — we didn’t know if the car was going to explode. It gives me hope.”
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