Facing growing flames, screams, neighbors save woman from car -- 25-year-old driver, couple critically hurt in fiery crash
MOORHEAD - The woman trapped inside the burning car screamed hysterically for help.
Flames darted over the door at the strangers trying desperately to pull her to safety.
And 21-year-old Cameron Janousek was scared, but not for himself.
"The thought that kept going through my head is, what if we don't get her out? Then we're going to have to sit here and watch her burn to death, basically, because those flames were so bad. They were coming at us so quick," he said. "That was the one thing that really triggered me."
Authorities on Wednesday praised Janousek, his neighbor Tom Pink and Clay County sheriff's deputies for their quick response and bravery in rescuing the woman after the fiery crash that seriously injured three people Tuesday night on Highway 75.
Nolan Underlee, 83, and his wife, Doris Underlee, 79, of Hendrum, were taken to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo in critical condition, Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow said.
The woman pulled from the car, Brianna Pallotta, 25, of Minot, N.D., also was hospitalized for burns and injuries not believed to be life-threatening, authorities said.
A hospital spokeswoman said the three did not want to release any information about their conditions.
The cars collided around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday about three miles north of Moorhead. The patrol said Pallotta was southbound on Highway 75 when she attempted to pass another vehicle and struck the Underlee car head-on.
The patrol is investigating whether alcohol was a factor, Grabow said. A blood sample drawn from Pallotta was sent to the state crime lab for testing. The results, which could take up to a month, and the crash reconstruction will determine whether she will face charges, he said. Pallotta was not arrested.
Pallotta's extensive criminal history includes two drunken-driving convictions in 2008 and a guilty plea last November to driving under the influence of liquor or drugs. She also has three convictions for driving under suspension or revocation, most recently in October 2011, online court records show.
Jumping into action
In the Crystal Creek subdivision along busy Highway 75, Janousek and his little sister were playing a game in the kitchen Tuesday night when they heard a loud bang.
His sister, anxious to see what had happened, ran outside, and Janousek chased after her.
As he neared the scene, he noticed two cars in the middle of Highway 75. Flames flickered from one of them.
"I kind of panicked a little bit," he said.
He sent his sister back inside. Getting closer, he saw two people sitting on the side of the road - presumably the Underlees.
"And then I started hearing a loud, high-pitched screaming noise coming from the car that was on fire," he said. "So it kind of hit me like, 'Holy cow, someone's in there.' "
Without hesitation, the auto mechanic and 2009 Moorhead High graduate bolted toward the burning 2000 Dodge Stratus.
"When I heard the screaming, it was like ... it took over my body," he said.
Janousek reached the car first. Pink, 46, who makes his living selling industrial parts, arrived soon after. They could see that the head-on impact had pinched Pallotta's legs under the collapsed dash.
"You could see she was stuck pretty good," Janousek said. "We tried to open the door, the door was stuck. So we ended up grabbing onto the door and gave it all we had and yanked the door out of the way enough so we could get in there.
"The flames at this point were already coming over the door at us. There was a north wind and it was coming, pretty much blowing flames right in our face," he said.
They tried to pull Pallotta out but realized her seat belt was still buckled. They unhooked it and pulled again.
"Me and my neighbor are sitting there pulling, pulling, pulling, trying with all we've got to get her out," Janousek said. "She's just stuck by her legs. We can't get her to budge."
"At that point, the flames were getting so bad, we actually had to step away from it for a little bit because our faces were basically burning," he said.
Pallotta panicked as flames spread from the engine compartment into the passenger area.
"She could feel the flames, the heat," Pink said.
At some point, Deputy Shawn Mork sprayed a fire extinguisher, knocking down the flames enough for the rescue to resume.
"She was slipping out slowly, but (we) still couldn't get her released," Janousek said.
Deputy Mark Empting arrived and grabbed a pry bar from his patrol car. Pink tried to use the pry bar, "but it wasn't doing much," he said.
By that time, Empting said there wasn't a lot of talking going on.
"She was moaning quite a bit. She appeared to be in a tremendous amount of pain from the injuries," he said.
As Pallotta finally broke free, Pink dropped the pry bar and helped Janousek and Empting carry her to safety.
Less than a minute later, "the whole car was engulfed," Pink said.
Janousek's 17-year-old brother, Colton, assisted the Underlees after they escaped their 2006 Cadillac.
Except for a minor burn on Janousek's wrist and minor cuts, the three men escaped the ordeal relatively unscathed. All three were at work Wednesday, though Janousek said he'd only slept an hour or two.
"I'd try to close my eyes, and I'd wake up to the images of her sitting in that car," he said.
Empting, who serves on the Dilworth Fire Department, said instinct kicked in for him, and apparently the others, to save Pallotta.
"I'm very happy that there were some good citizens out there that were willing to jump into action when the call came out for 'em," he said. "They were a tremendous help, and sometimes we can't do this job without their help."
For Pink's wife, Mary, there was no doubt about how the situation would have ended for Pallotta without the good Samaritans who came to her aid.
"She wouldn't be alive," she said.
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