FGHS grad helps woman free unconscious man moments before car goes up in flames

by: COURTESY PHOTO: MEGAN ROGERS - This photo was taken about 30 seconds after Nick Kingston and Washington County Sheriffs Cpl. Cheryl Crecelius pulled the unconscious driver from this burning Jeep Cherokee.Washington County Sheriff’s Corporal Cheryl Crecelius wasn’t thinking about what might happen when the flames hit the most flammable parts of the car.

“I was just thinking, ‘I have to get these people out so they don’t die,’” she said Sunday, recounting the crash scene she’d encountered the previous night.

According to the Washington County Crash Analysis Reconstruction Team, a Jeep Grand Cherokee was speeding north on Southwest Springhill Road south of Gaston about 8 p.m. Saturday, March 29, when driver Mark Vanvleck, 25, ran the stop sign at Southwest Laurelwood Road and lost control.

The Jeep apparently left the roadway and began its long path of destruction, striking two culverts, two trees and crossing a driveway before somehow bouncing back onto Springhill and coming to a stop.

In a lucky coincidence for two of the men in the Jeep, the first person on the scene was a gutsy, 46-year-old, off-duty Sheriff’s corporal.

“I actually heard the crash and when I looked, I saw the vehicle landing,” said Crecelius, who lives in the community.

The Jeep immediately began burning and Crecelius’s first fear was that the people inside would all be dead.

Then passenger Christian Bandmann stumbled out from the right rear door.

“He was in shock,” said Crecelius, who stopped briefly to check on the 23-year-old Salem resident as she raced toward the Jeep in her civilian clothes. Bandmann told her there were a couple other people inside.

She could see Vanvleck and 25-year-old Jason Eaton in the front seats, both unconscious but alive, perhaps because they were both wearing seatbelts and their airbags deployed. But their doors were jammed shut, so the 5-foot-1 Crecelius crawled in through Bandmann’s open door, unbuckled Eaton’s seatbelt and reclined his passenger seat.

“I was screaming at him and trying to rub his sternum to wake him up,” Crecelius said.

By that time, flames were coming up through the Jeep’s floorboards and Crecelius struggled to work through the smoke.

“I was just thinking, ‘I can’t let these people die.’”

Coughing, she hauled the unconscious man backwards through the right rear door and dragged him a safe distance from the rapidly growing fire, then ran back to free Vanvleck.

She found the entire engine compartment engulfed in flames and thick smoke inside the Jeep.

Crecelius tried to pull Vanvleck out the same way she had pulled Eaton, but his legs were pinned beneath the dashboard.

“By that time I’d inhaled a lot of smoke. I felt like I was pushing my limits,” said Crecelius, who was coughing and nearing exhaustion after her adrenaline-fueled efforts.

“Right then was when I was making the decision and thinking, ‘If I can’t get him out, I’m going to have to leave him,’” she recalled.

That’s when the good Samaritan showed up. “I just thought it was amazing,” Crecelius said. “I’m yelling at him, saying ‘We’ve gotta get him out! The car’s gonna go!’”by: COURTESY PHOTO: MEGAN ROGERS - Megan Rogers and Nick Kingston attended a relatives 60th birthday party in Dallas hours before Kingston helped pull a man from a blazing vehicle filled with so much smoke that Kingston kept coughing for a while after they left the crash scene. 

Nick Kingston, a 2010 Forest Grove High School graduate, was coming back from a family gathering in Dallas and had just dropped off his 15-year-old niece, Emily Boehmer, when he turned the corner and saw the Jeep in flames a couple hundred feet away.

The 22-year-old parked and jumped out of his car with his girlfriend, Megan Rogers of Banks, also 22, and Emily’s friend, Tristan Crume, 15, of Gaston.

Rogers stopped by the intersection to call 911 with the street names.

Kingston, meanwhile, “heard the corporal screaming for help, so I started sprinting up to the truck.”

When he arrived, Crecelius was coughing and flames were shooting through the dashboard and flaring up as they contacted the flammable, toxic glue beneath the vinyl interior, said Kingston, who climbed through the smoke into the back seat.

He could feel the heat and was aware of the risk to his own life, but “we were just working so fast and there was so much adrenaline that you don’t think about it.”

Putting one arm under Vanvleck’s shoulder and grabbing his waist with the other, Kingston yanked the 170-pound man free and out through the rear passenger door, where Crecelius reached in to help.

Thirty seconds later, Kingston said, the car was engulfed in flames: “If we had waited any longer to get him out, he would not have made it.”

It was not the first time Kingston had saved a life. He’d volunteered with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue for about nine months after he graduated from high school and he also interned with the Hermiston Fire Department, so he’d used CPR to save choking and heart-attack victims.

“But this was the most dramatic,” said Kingston, who is now a petty officer third class in the U. S. Navy, stationed in Washington.

He and Crecelius pulled Vanvleck away to join Bandmann and a conscious but disoriented Eaton.

Vanvleck remained unconscious until volunteers with the Gaston Fire Department arrived and revived him. Forest Grove Fire & Rescue also helped at the scene.

While none of the three had life-threatening injuries, Bandmann was LifeFlighted to Oregon Health & Science University and the other two were taken by ambulance to a trauma center, according to the Sgt. Bob Ray of the sheriff’s office.

Vanvleck was cited for Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants, Reckless Driving and two counts of Fourth Degree Assault, with additional charges possible, said Ray, who added that Vanvleck needed internal surgery and might still be in the hospital.

Crecelius estimates Vanvleck was going 80 miles per hour in that 45 mph speed zone. It was fast enough to separate the transmission from the engine at some point during the crash and launch it 46 feet down the roadway from where the Jeep finally landed.

Springhill Road was closed until after 1 a.m. that night.

Crecelius was still awake at the time, waiting for her adrenaline to calm down.

It was the worst crash she’d encountered in her 13 years with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, she said Sunday, still coughing slightly from the smoke inhalation 17 hours earlier. But that meant it was also the most direct opportunity to save people’s lives.

“This is one of the reasons why I do what I do,” she said.

From what he’s heard of the timing, Kingston knows that if he hadn’t stopped to drop off his niece, he might have been well past the crash scene when it happened and not around to help.

“Or if we had left (Dallas) a couple minutes earlier,” he said, “we might have been part of the accident.”

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