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Man recounts rescue of man pulled from burning car near National Cathedral

Matt Zapotosky

Boyish curiosity first drew Kevin McDonnell to the fire behind Washington National Cathedral Sunday. Something a little deeper drove him to pull a man from a burning car.

By McDonnell’s own account, the scene was something out of a movie: At about 1 p.m. in an off-road area near the Bishop’s Garden in the National Cathedral, a car caught on fire. With rain pouring and church bells ringing in the background, McDonnell raced past people yelling for the man to get out and decided to take action.

By the time a rescuer got to the car, its engine compartment was on fire and smoke was billowing through its windows. (Courtesy Michael Cotter)

He broke down the trees blocking the man’s door, then pulled him bodily from the car. Flames and smoke hampered his efforts; at one point, McDonnell’s own jacket caught on fire.

"Clearly the biggest concern, and why I don’t think anyone else approached the car, was the fire was moving backwards," he said in an interview Tuesday. "It was just a matter of time before the gas tank ignited, which it was kind enough to do after we got him to the top of the hill.”

"I just couldn’t sit there and literally watch another person get burned up in his car," said McDonnell.

For McDonnell, 40, who works in sales and lives in the District, the incident began as he was driving past the cathedral with a high school student from Northern Ireland who he is mentoring. The two spotted a fire in the woods near the cathedral and a small crowd of people standing around it. Having nothing better to do on a Sunday, they decided to check it out for themselves, McDonnell said.

An elderly man was pulled from his burning car Sunday behind Washington National Cathedral. (Courtesy Michael Cotter)

When McDonnell approached, he heard someone yelling, “Get out of the car!” to a man inside. McDonnell said he assumed the man had been overtaken by smoke -- it was billowing out of the engine compartment, which was completely engulfed in flames -- so he rushed forward to pull him out. When he got closer, he saw the man was conscious but unable to open his driver’s side door because it was blocked by trees.

McDonnell said he broke down the trees, catching his jacket on fire in the process, then pulled the man from the car. He and others then carried the man up the hill.

Fire officials have said the blaze started when the man’s car, which was off the roadway, overheated and caught some leaves on fire. It is not clear why the man’s car was off the road. He declined medical treatment, fire officials have said.

McDonnell said he recognizes he probably saved the man’s life, but he feels more guilty than heroic. A father of four, McDonnell said he wonders whether he should have been so quick to risk his own life.

“The really weird part is this sort of second phase," he said. "I don’t know if it's guilt, guilt on risking my wife and my children's future by playing with fire. I just think its nerves kind of settling back in, and your brain starts to run a lot of the 'what ifs.'”

-- Matt Zapotosky

By Matt Zapotosky  |  January 20, 2010; 6:03 AM ET
Categories:  Fires & Fire Safety , Heroes , Matt Zapotosky , The District  
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This guy is an absolute hero.

Posted by: | January 20, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

heroes just, act...

Posted by: demtse | January 20, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for writing about this man. What a hero, whether he thinks so or not. I am sure that every great person we hail as a hero had those same feelings. Should I defy the British, is slavery worth fighting for, etc., but they all made the right decision when it really mattered. I am glad we live in a county where every day citizens are this brave!!

Posted by: jramsey2 | January 20, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like that student from Northern Ireland couldn't possibly have a better mentor.

Posted by: clfrdj | January 20, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

@clfrdj - At first blush I read that as black humor. Guess I need to turn off my sarcasm meter for stories like this!

Posted by: calliope_81 | January 20, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Easy for me to say, I know... But I don't understand how those other people could just stand there shouting.

Mr. McDonnell is a true hero; those other folks are... not.

Posted by: spunkydawg1 | January 20, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

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