Kansas City,
17:30 PM

‘We need to hurry!’ Children's Mercy carpenter rescues young woman from burning vehicle

It was 5:30 on a foggy Friday morning and Children's Mercy carpenter Henry Assel was driving to work when something in his peripheral vision caught his attention.

“Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flickering light off the highway. I realized it was a car on fire, so I pulled over and ran toward it.”

Henry, who lives in Smithville, Missouri, was at the off ramp at the intersection of Highway 69 and 152; the wrecked car had gone down an embankment, skipped across a creek and plowed into the other side of the hill, coming to rest in a wooded area.

“As I ran toward the car I was yelling ‘Is anybody in the car?’ I didn’t hear any response, and when I got to the car the fire was getting bigger, rolling out from under the hood. I thought maybe the person might be unconscious. I couldn’t see in the car because the air bags had deployed. I kept yelling and was looking for something to break the driver’s side window when I finally heard her say, ‘Yeah, I’m in here.’”

The driver, a young woman, was alone in the vehicle. She couldn’t get out of the driver’s side door, so Henry went to the passenger-side door.

“It was really crinkled from the wreck; I had to keep tugging and pulling on it and I finally got it open…she was really dazed and trying to scoot out, but I don’t think she really realized the situation. She said ‘Just give me a second.’ I was like, NO! NO! your car’s on fire! We need to hurry!’”

The fire was spreading quickly, rolling toward the windshield when Henry got the young woman out, crossed the creek and tried to head back up the embankment. “She wanted to rest, but it was getting too hot to be that close, so I told her, ‘We’re only 40 feet away…we’ve got to keep going.’”

By that time, another man had arrived on the scene. ‘He grabbed an arm, I grabbed an arm and we helped her up the hill,” Henry said. “She was so dazed that she would be standing there, then just fall…she needed help.”

Henry called 911 when the three got to the top of the hill. While the car didn’t explode in one huge blast, there were smaller eruptions as the flames consumed the interior and ignited the tires.

“She was lucky,” Henry said. “She had bumps and bruises and her left hand was cut, but she wasn’t seriously injured. Later she said she didn’t recall the crash, but remembers a hand reaching into the car, pulling on her and stumbling across the creek and out of the woods.”

Henry waited for the ambulance, police and fire trucks to arrive. His clothes were covered in mud and blood, so he went back home to change. (Yes, his later-than-usual arrival at work was obviously excused!)

Reflecting on the experience, Henry described it as, “crazy.”

“The only thing going through my mind as it was happening, was, ‘We’ve got to get out of here!” Henry said.

“But when you start thinking about it afterwards, it’s really a humbling thing,” he added. “Facebook blew up with people saying, ‘Thank you, you’re an awesome guy’; it’s weird being praised for doing something that’s instinctive, something you just do. I work with a bunch of guys who wouldn’t think twice before jumping in and doing the same thing I did to help a person in that situation.”

The woman’s family has reached out to Henry to thank him.

“It’s funny because her dad works at a lumber yard just two blocks from my house,” Henry said. “I stopped in and talked with him.” The woman’s family is expressing its gratitude by taking Henry’s family to dinner.

“It’s a bit scary when you think back on what could have happened,” Henry said of the Jan. 8 incident. “What if I had called in sick that day, or been looking down, messing with the radio? I wouldn’t have noticed the wreck, and things could have turned out a lot differently.”