Kevin Harrigan ’69, a Syracuse adoption lawyer, was among a handful of good Samaritans recently involved in rescuing a stranger from a burning truck on the New York State Thruway. An article in the Post-Standard explains how he and others pried a smashed door to pull a soldier from the pickup truck.
The article notes Harrigan and his legal assistant Sherry Kline were driving eastbound on the way to Albany. “They were going to meet with a birth mother at an Albany hospital. She was ready to sign the papers that would allow an adoptive couple to take a baby home,” the article states.
“Harrigan and Kline saw the truck already pressed against the bridge. They realized the collision had just happened, that emergency crews had yet to arrive.”
He is quoted, “I think I’ll see this for the rest of my life.”
Harrigan earned his B.A. in American history. As a student, he was a member of the baseball team and captain of the basketball team. He also worked in Saga.
The full article follows.
Amid Flames, Strangers Rushed to Rescue Soldier on the Thruway: Fire, Desperation, a Crushed Door… and Then it Opened.
Sean Kirst • December 12, 2013
Often, early in the morning, Tom Buckel will add a thought to Twitter that he hopes will serve as a kind of signpost for his day. Monday, just before he left for a drive to Utica, Buckel stood in the kitchen of his Syracuse home and wrote out this tweet: “Your mission: one act of kindness today. And excellence in all things.”
Within 20 minutes, he had to prove he meant it.
Buckel, a former Onondaga County legislator, is now managing attorney for Legal Services of Central New York. He often works from an office in Utica, and he uses the drive as a time of quiet reflection about his family and his job. He was so lost in thought Monday as he drove eastbound, on the New York State Thruway in DeWitt, that it took him an instant to fully register what he’d just witnessed: A westbound pickup truck, across the median from Buckel, veered off the Thruway and slammed – seemingly at full speed – into a bridge that carries I-481 above the interstate.
Buckel pulled into the median, stopped his car and sprinted across slick and snowy grass toward the truck. He was aware of others coming behind him.
“I ran to do what I could,” said Buckel, who looked through a shattered driver’s-side window and saw a man, pinned and unconscious, his head pressed against the steering wheel. Flames were already coming up from beneath the dashboard and licking at the injured man’s shoulders.
The man wore military fatigues beneath his jacket. One side of the vehicle was pushed against the bridge. The driver’s-side door was crushed in the fashion of a can, smashed from the bottom: The upper edge projected out by a few inches, while the base was pushed in, toward the truck.
Buckel grabbed the door and started pulling. He was vaguely aware that several others had joined him and were tugging, as well.
The door wouldn’t budge.
It was maybe 8:20 a.m.
Kevin Harrigan, a Syracuse adoption lawyer, was also driving eastbound, on the way to Albany. He was in his car with his legal assistant, Sherry Kline. They were going to meet with a birth mother at an Albany hospital. She was ready to sign the papers that would allow an adoptive couple to take a baby home.
Harrigan and Kline saw the truck already pressed against the bridge. They realized the collision had just happened, that emergency crews had yet to arrive.
“I think I’ll see this for the rest of my life,” Harrigan said.
Like Buckel, Harrigan pulled his car into the median. He and Kline ran to help a little knot of men, maybe three, who were already gathered by the pickup. Harrigan and Buckel are both Syracuse lawyers. They have known each other for years.
They looked at each other and said nothing. There was no time.
About five people, by that point, were pulling at the door. It was wedged tight. The flames were closing in on the unconscious man. One of the rescuers, Kline said, ran to his car, found a fire extinguisher, ran back and tried to spray it on the flames.
It was empty.
“I’ve never felt so helpless,” Kline said. “For the rest of my life, I am always going to keep a working fire extinguisher and a crowbar in my car.”
That desperation bound them all. “It occurred to me, as we’re trying to open (the door), that we’re going to have to watch this poor guy burn to death,” Harrigan said. A man he described as “a little guy,” another rescuer, climbed onto the roof of the truck and started pushing against the lip of the damaged door with his feet. The flames grew more intense. Someone screamed that the car might explode.
They already knew it. They stayed put, and kept pulling.
Five minutes into the attempt – “Maybe more,” Buckel said – a man appeared behind them, as if from nowhere, carrying a fire extinguisher. He hurried to the window and did his best to hold back the flames, until the extinguisher was empty. Then he took a good look at the unconscious driver. He reached in and examined the name tag on the man’s military jacket.
“That’s my captain!” he shouted. “We have to save him!”
The newcomer was Raymond Presley, a truck driver who is also a sergeant first class in the National Guard. Presley recognized the driver as Capt. Timothy Neild, a veteran of duty in Afghanistan. Neild and Presley are in the same platoon of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, based at the Thompson Road Armory at Hancock Field.
Presley was bringing his tractor-trailer back from Connecticut, where he’d dropped off a load of furniture. Typically, he said, something – at some point in the delivery – would have been delayed, and he would have gotten home at least 15 minutes later.
On this particular run, everything went exactly on schedule. He was ready to drop off his rig and then to go and get some sleep. But he saw the smoking pickup jammed against the bridge, saw the little group of people frantically working at the door. Presley stopped. He grabbed the extinguisher. He ran to help. Inside the pickup, he saw his captain. At any minute, the entire pickup might explode.
“Don’t you leave him!” Presley screamed to the others. No one did. The man on top of the vehicle kept pushing with his feet. The smell of smoke, of fumes, was sickening. Kline, looking at the bent plastic and metal near the driver, realized the damage would make it impossible to unsnap his seat belt. She shouted that someone had to cut him loose.
Presley had a knife in his pocket. He was pulling at the door with both hands, but he told one of the other men to grab it. The blade was so sharp “it went through the seat belt like butter,” Harrigan recalled.
Minute by minute, without much hope, they kept pulling at the door. Presley estimates they gave it “four or five big yanks,” falling into a fierce, unspoken rhythm.
Finally, with one great effort, they moved the door. But the opening was only 18 or 20 inches wide, Presley recalls. It hardly seemed to be enough space to extract a human being.
“It’s time,” Presley shouted. “We need to get him out of here!”
A sea of arms reached in and grabbed Neild. The dashboard was pressed forward, toward his body. He appeared to have fractures in his legs and feet. Flames had caught onto his jacket, near his neck. As the men pulled him out, Kline did her best to pat out the fire with her hands.
The little group dragged him about 15 feet away from the pickup. Presley “wouldn’t let go of his hand,” Buckel said. They had just set down Neild when Sgt. John Tirinato, another guardsman, ran toward them to help. Like Neild, he had been on his way to a drill at Hancock. He saw the wreck. He stopped his car. Only when he reached the scene by foot did he realize the victim was a captain in the same brigade.
As Tirinato watched, flames exploded in the nowempty pickup with such force that Buckel was thrown onto his face.
“I’ve seen a lot of accidents, but this was completely crazy,” said Tirinato, who called Presley a great soldier. “Every second counted, every decision that was made. It was God’s good grace that saved the captain (and) will allow his wife to have a Christmas with her husband.”
Patrick Parker, one of the rescuers, shouted that they still were too close to the truck. Everyone came together to move Neild behind a concrete pillar. Tirinato jumped in to carefully support Neild’s neck and head, and the little group dragged the captain another 20 feet.
A second explosion rocked the pickup, kicking metal into the air. The vehicle was consumed by flame.
Neild was safe. They’d brought him out of danger. The pickup burst into flames, Buckel estimates, “probably 30 seconds, 45 seconds after we got him out.”
Presley wept and held the captain’s hand, vowing that he wouldn’t leave.
Memories, at that point, become muddled: A man arrived who said he had medical knowledge. Some witnesses say he was a doctor; others said he was an emergency medical technician. Police and firefighters arrived at the scene. Neild was transported to Upstate University Hospital, where he remains in critical condition.
Yet “the prognosis is very good,” wrote Neild’s father, Rick, in a note sent Wednesday to The Post-Standard. Rick Neild said his son has a young daughter, and his wife Beth, a schoolteacher, is expecting another child. The captain’s injuries will demand a long recovery, Rick Neild wrote, “but the key word is recovery.”
If not for the efforts of every rescuer, wrote the father, “this fine young man … would have perished.”
At the scene, once Neild was safe, a bystander warned Harrigan he’d better move his car before someone ran into it. Harrigan and Kline got in and kept going to Albany, where the impending adoption was too important to blow off. Their thoughts, the whole way, were with the injured driver.
Caked with mud, they finally walked into an Albany hospital. The birth mother looked at them, astounded.
“I know,” Harrigan told her. “It looks like I just crawled under a truck.”
As for Buckel, he was stunned, overwhelmed. He stayed and told investigators what he’d seen, before he finally prepared to leave. Already, he was thinking how every person on the scene was meant to be there, how different it could have been if another minute had gone by, how “fate means everything, and we never really have control of our lives.”
He found his way to his car. It was still running.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. Write to him in care of The Post-Standard, 220 S. Warren St., Syracuse, 13202, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or send him a message on Facebook or Twitter.