HANCOCK COUNTY, Miss. (AP) — Passing motorists who saw smoke billowing Thursday from a stand of pine trees along Interstate 10 in southern Mississippi rescued a woman and her disabled sister from a wrecked, burning sport utility vehicle.
Between 15 and 20 motorists, including a photographer for The Associated Press, managed to save the women, who were trapped inside.
Ben Seibert, a Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman, identified the driver as Giovanna Demonte, 36, of Picayune, Miss. He said she was airlifted in stable condition to Gulfport Memorial Hospital. "She had serious head trauma. Anytime that happens, injuries are considered life-threatening," he said.
Seibert said Demonte was traveling eastbound on Interstate 10 at Mile Marker 7, just past the Louisiana-Mississippi line, about 11:30 a.m. when she went off the road, overcorrected, and entered the median. The passenger side of her 2002 Chevrolet Trailblazer then crashed into a tree.
Demonte's backseat passenger suffered minor injuries, said Seibert, who identified her as Felicidad Demonte, 39, of Slidell, La. Witnesses at the scene believed the petite woman was a teenager and noted that Demonte referred to her passenger as her daughter.
Photographer Gerald Herbert said the rescuers pulled the disabled woman from the wreck first, but getting Demonte out was difficult.
"No one had fire extinguishers," Herbert said. "We were all sure she was going to perish. The sounds of her screams and the sight of the fire inching closer to her, that was the most horrible and helpless feeling I've ever felt in my life."
Herbert said he and others began flagging down motorists in desperate search of extinguishers, water — anything that could be used to douse the flames while others tried to find a way to get her out of the car.
Using extinguishers provided by passing truckers, the rescuers were able to control the fire as they worked to free her.
Petty Officer Melissa Estes, who's based at the Naval base in Gulfport but is from Annapolis, Md., said she came upon the scene after picking up her mother from the airport in New Orleans.
"I noticed the smoke," she recalled. "I saw only one person so I stopped and ran down there to help. Others also stopped and a couple of guys broke the windows to the back passenger seat and were able to pull the girl out and her wheelchair. We got her to the road safely. The woman kept screaming 'My baby! My baby!' I really thought the car was going to blow up."
Zach Miller, of Hurley, Miss., said the woman was screaming at the top of her lungs.
"I kept telling her, 'We won't leave you here to burn. We're gonna get you out of here,'" he said. "I've never been part of anything like that in my life. It was definitely an experience."
Herbert said a guy in a pickup truck tried to pull the car out of the valley where it landed and a cement truck eventually joined the rescue effort and began spraying water on the vehicle, keeping the flames at bay. Others used crowbars to help pry open the car's jammed door and the Good Samaritans finally were able to pull the woman to safety.
"She was so blessed that mixer had a water hose," said Harold Catha Jr., also of Hurley, who helped with the effort. "I know that saved her life."
Catha said he used his fire extinguisher to help put out flames that were licking at the SUV's front tires. "But the flames would abate for a second or two, but then blaze back," he said. "The mixer was able to put water inside the vehicle when the flames were trying to get to her. While the water was being poured on her and the fire, they were able to pull the car up out of the woods and get her out. It all took maybe 10 to 12 minutes but if felt a whole lot longer."
"I hope she recovers. I'm really worried about her," said Estes, who's deploying to Afghanistan in about two weeks. "She was really in shock and kept trying to get up to go back to the car."