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Photos courtesy of Rusty Lowe
Hoover firefighters responded to a fiery vehicle crash off of I-65 on Saturday.
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Photo courtesy of Rusty Lowe.
Hoover firefighters responded to a fiery vehicle crash off of I-65 on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016.
John DeBlieux almost drove past a fiery car crash on Interstate 65 in Hoover Saturday afternoon, but now he's glad he didn't.
The 66-year-old Jasper man ended up being able to help pull 24-year-old Christian Cooper from his burning vehicle and save his life.
DeBlieux and a friend visiting from Atlanta had just left a UAB basketball game when they got to the accident scene on I-65 South just before the U.S. 31 exit.
“When we passed the car and saw it first, there were a lot of people there, so initially I was just going to keep going, but he said, ‘No. We have to pull over,’” DeBlieux said.
His friend works with the Georgia State Defense Force and had training to deal with situations of this sort, DeBlieux said.
After pulling over, DeBlieux saw Cooper’s car on its side in a ravine and engulfed in 20-foot flames, he said. Cooper’s vehicle had veered off the interstate, struck an interstate sign, crashed into a tree and immediately burst into flames, police said.
“There was no way of getting in, and then I assume the young man kicked the windshield out of the car,” DeBlieux said.
A woman at the scene of the crash drew his attention to someone yelling in the car, and DeBlieux and one other man ran down to the car to help Cooper out.
In the back of DeBlieux's mind was an incident from more than 30 years ago when DeBlieux's father pulled a young man from a burning car in Jacksonville, Florida, and received burns to his hand, said DeBlieux, who is a chaplain at Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper and an ordained Catholic deacon.
“When I was down there, when I was running down to help him, I was offering prayers, but I was also thinking, ‘If my dad can do this, so can I,’” DeBlieux said. “I just had the resolute decision, either we’re both getting out of here or we’re both burning up. There was no way I was going to leave him there.”
It took two people to pull Cooper from the car, but awkward footing meant the other man was unable to help pull Cooper up the hill, DeBlieux said.
“First I tried holding his hands, and I’m not trying to be gross, but his flesh was gelled because it was on fire, and I ended up getting my hands burned,” DeBlieux said. “We ended up not being able to hold onto each other’s hands because of his burning flesh.”
He then tried to pull Cooper by his clothes, but as they were burning, they fell apart. DeBlieux decided to pull Cooper by his belt and said he spoke to him as he did so.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to help me,’ and the kid had presence of mind,” DeBlieux said. “I said, ‘You’ve got to push,’ and I pulled on his belt and he pushed with his legs.”
After getting part of the way up the hill, three or four other people came to help DeBlieux get Cooper up the rest of the way and to put out the flames on his body.
The chance to help pull a man from a burning vehicle was a chance to emulate his father, DeBlieux said, but he credits God with helping give him the strength to help Cooper.
“My Lord did that [gave his life] for me, and in this instance, he gave me the grace — and I give him all the glory — to imitate in that. He gave me the strength and the grace,” he said. “He gave me the grace to be able to do something special, and that’s a gift. I feel that I am the lucky one. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
After leaving the scene of the accident, DeBlieux said he continued on to Saturday vigil mass at his church. The service was a blur, he said, and afterward he wished he knew the name of the man he pulled out of the car. A little while later, he received a call from a Hoover police officer, who told him Cooper’s name.
DeBlieux visited UAB Hospital’s Trauma Burn Intensive Care Unit, where Cooper was undergoing treatment for severe burns, and spoke with his family.
“We prayed together, and I was able to function as a chaplain to them,” DeBlieux said. “That was very fulfilling, to be able to minister to the family.”
He has stayed in touch with the Cooper family and said he most recently spoke with the family on Monday afternoon. They said his condition is stable, and he is being transported to a burn clinic in Georgia.
“He needs a lot of prayer, but he is doing better, and at least they’re upgrading him to a better percent to survive,” DeBlieux said.
Throughout the situation, DeBlieux said he admired Cooper’s strength and presence of mind. The ability to help was a gift, and he will continue to keep up with the family, he said.
“He [Christian Cooper] never whined or complained, and when I told him, ‘You’ve got to help me,’ every time I told him to push, he pushed,” he said. “That young man is brave and has a strong will. To me, it was inspiring.”
A GoFundMe page for Cooper was created on March 1, and more than $2,000 was donated in the first day.