by Audrey Thomasson
While they may call it “just doing our jobs,” the circumstances surrounding the March 30 rescue of a man from a burning vehicle near here are being hailed as “heroic” by Lancaster County Sheriff Patrick McCranie and Kilmarnock Volunteer Fire Department president Ryan Gordon.
On May 3, Sheriff McCranie recognized deputies Jim Peace and Chris Beuchelt for their heroism and presented them lifesaving awards in a ceremony attended by their colleagues.
On May 7, volunteer firefighters and their families gathered at the Kilmarnock firehouse to honor the heroism of Kevin Wilkins and Virginia State Police Trooper Josh Hudson. Both have volunteered with the fire department for 15 years.
Kilmarnock police officer Dan Brooks and White Stone Volunteer Fire Department member Tom Conkle also participated in the rescue.
“If any one of them were out of the equation, it wouldn’t have worked,” said Beuchelt.
“It had to be a team effort,” said Peace.
Both firemen agreed.
“If any one thing had been different, it would have been a different outcome,” said trooper/fireman Hudson. “All the moons aligned for that guy that night.”
That guy is Marcus Seldon, who is still in the critical care unit of VCU Medical Center in Richmond, recovering from injuries sustained in the fiery crash.
Beuchelt’s quick thinking and constant communication with other law enforcement was the critical key to getting help quickly to the accident site, according to Peace.
Beuchelt was headed toward Kilmarnock on Irvington Road at 11:58 p.m. March 30 when a black 2007 GMC Yukon SUV sped by him toward Irvington. “He was doing 98 miles per hour,” according to mobile radar, said Beuchelt. “By the time I got turned around, I saw the explosion” at the entrance to Hills Quarter. Beuchelt was already on the radio calling for back-up.
“I ran over a bumper and a lot of debris all over the road. The car had hit a utility pole and then hit a second pole with a transformer” which blew up on impact, said Beuchelt.
The deputy jumped out of his car and stopped two vehicles from driving through the debris. “The car was overturned and gas was spilling onto the driver,” Beuchelt said. He continued to call for help for a single-car crash while trying to break the window with his baton to rescue the driver, Paul Cockrell, 37, of White Stone.
When Cockrell’s 2008 red Ford Edge SUV hit the transformer pole, trooper Hudson was on a dinner break at KVFD. The lights in the firehouse flickered.
“I knew right away what that meant,” he said. Hudson called the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office and was told there was a single car accident at the entrance to Hills Quarter. He and trooper Jody Baker jumped in their vehicles and headed out.
Meanwhile, Beuchelt was unable to break the passenger window, so he helped the driver climb out the shattered back window of the overturned car. As soon as the driver was free, he ran about 10 feet and then collapsed.
While assisting the man, Beuchelt noticed this vehicle was a red SUV, not the black SUV that sped past him. He looked around the area for the other vehicle. He spotted the glow of a small fire on the other side of Irvington Road about 150 yards away.
Conkle, who lives on Irvington Road near the crash site, was awakened by the explosion, but it was his emergency radio that got him out of bed. He headed out the door.
The first thing he saw was a black SUV on fire on Ransone’s Nursery and Maintenance Inc. property. He headed for the fire and saw that it was burning through the dashboard. He also saw two police vehicles pull up across the roadway at Hills Quarter.
As soon as Brooks and Peace arrived, Beuchelt pointed them toward the black SUV across Irvington Road and another 25 yards up an incline away from the road. The officers ran to the location and found the vehicle had hit a pine tree and smoke was filling the air.
Peace said he couldn’t see into the car because all the air bags had deployed and blocked the windows.
“I heard someone say “Ow.” Immediately Peace took his baton to the passenger window and tried to break it open. It wouldn’t budge. Brooks went to grab his window punch as Peace worked to get to the victim. Wilkins arrived on the scene just as Beuchelt showed up with a fire extinguisher. Wilkins emptied it on the fire, “…but it wasn’t enough to put it out,” Wilkins said. “The fire was too big to put out with the extinguisher.”
By now, troopers Hudson and Baker had arrived at the overturned vehicle. Baker went to assist the first victim while Hudson grabbed a fire extinguisher from his vehicle and headed toward the fire, yelling, “Is anyone in the car?”
The flames had engulfed the front of the car and the driver was now screaming in pain as he tried to climb to the back seat—the back of his clothes ablaze.
The windows would not give way to Peace’s baton, as he tried other windows. Brooks was back with a window punch, which immediately shattered a backseat window.
Seldon was now at the broken window. Conkle reached in to help him and burned his hands. Wilkins grabbed the second extinguisher and sprayed down Seldon’s back. Then Hudson, Wilkins and Conkle were able to ease Seldon out the window to safety.
The wind was whipping up the flames, so they pulled Seldon away from the car.
“Without the fire extinguisher, we wouldn’t have been able to get him out,” said Hudson. Still, all three men received burns and cuts to their hands.
Within seconds, the car was fully engulfed in flames.
It felt like it took a long time—maybe 20 minutes—to get Seldon out, said Hudson. But when he reviewed the dash cam on his vehicle, it was just 12 seconds from the time he ran over to the burning car until they cleared Seldon from the SUV.
According to Hudson, Cockrell was making a left turn into Hills Quarter when Seldon slammed into the back of his vehicle, spinning him around and into one utility pole and then a second, causing the transformer to explode. Seldon’s SUV ran off the road in the opposite direction across a grassy field and stopped after it hit a pine tree.
Cockrell was treated at Bon Secours Rappahannock General Hospital, and Seldon, 26, of Kilmarnock was rushed to VCU Medical Center.
“Seldon has had several surgeries over the past month and is expected to fully recover,” reported Hudson.
After the crash, Sheriff McCranie confirmed he ordered window punches for all his road deputies.
The accident is still under investigation by Hudson.