Men who saved woman from burning vehicle meet her during ceremony

Two men described as “Christmas angels” after rescuing a 62-year-old woman from a burning car Christmas Day received a big surprise when being honored for their heroic efforts.

The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department awarded Johnny R. Smith and Tim Meeks, both of Columbus, with Medals of Valor on Thursday in honor of their efforts to save Debra Jean Stephens from her burning vehicle.

In a big surprise to even the sheriff’s department, Stephens attended the ceremony to thank them in person, even as she continues to recover from serious burns after being treated at an Indianapolis hospital for several weeks.

Stephens, still with bandages on her face and a bandanna covering her head where her hair was burned, hugged Smith and Meeks, and some tears flowed as she gave heartfelt thanks to the two men.

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Smith said she told them she is sure she would have died if they had not followed their instincts to double back to her car and save her that day.

Meeks and Smith, who did not know each other prior to Christmas Day, were driving southbound on Interstate 65 in separate vehicles and each noticed some smoke coming from an area between a side access road and the interstate at about 3:30 p.m.

Smith, who is operations manager for the Bartholomew County Solid Waste District, said he was heading out of Columbus on Interstate 65 south toward his home near Ogilville after attending a Christmas get-together. He happened to glimpse a little smoke off to the right and at first didn’t think too much about it, but then thought he thought he saw the top of a car.

“But the more I looked over, the more I got to thinking about it,” Smith said.

He went off the interstate at the next exit and described it as “running his car pretty hard” down the access road to try to determine what was on fire, which took about three minutes.

“When I got up on it, the car already was smoking going into the back seat,” Smith said. “I threw my vehicle in park and jumped the fence, just about the same time that Tim (Meeks) got there.”

Meeks also was driving home southbound on I-65 from a Christmas celebration in the Camp Atterbury area when he saw the smoke on the right side of the road, and instinctively decided he needed to check it out.

“I went past it, to the next exit and then came back on the access road,” arriving at about the same time as Smith, he said.

The two could see flames around the driver — Smith went to the driver’s side and Meeks to the passenger side to try to determine if there was more than one person in the car.

Stephens was hunched over the steering wheel, unconscious, Smith said. Although there was heavy smoke and flames, he took a deep breath and opened the door and reached for her arm — only to find that she was wearing a seat belt that needed to be unlatched near the center console, he said. Flames were rolling toward them from the back seat and heavy smoke had filled the vehicle’s interior.

“So I took another deep breath, and stuck my head back in and hit the seat belt,” Smith said. “I burned my hair a little bit on top.”

With Meeks’ help, the two dragged Stephens about 40 to 50 feet away from the car, concerned that the vehicle, which was rapidly filling with fire, might explode.

Smith said he noticed that Stephens forehead and hair showed that she had been burned and he immediately checked to see if she was breathing. He carefully wiped away smoke residue from her mouth and nose and Stephens appeared to begin breathing more normally.

Smith called for Meeks to toss him a phone to call 911 and the two began talking to Stephens.

“We were trying to find out if someone else was in the car,” Smith said.

They were both relieved when she regained consciousness and told them no one else was in the vehicle, Meeks said. She was also able to tell them her name and at one point told Smith, “thank you.”

“If it had been 30 seconds later, she (Stephens) would have died,” Meeks said of the timing of the two men’s arrival to find the burning car.

Meeks and Smith said they had no rescue or firefighter training and had never rescued anyone before.

When firefighters arrived, Stephens’ 2011 Chevrolet Equinox was engulfed in flames, Meeks said. An ambulance arrived initially and a decision was made to transport Stephens by Lifeline helicopter to Eskenazi.

The two men later learned that Stephens’ husband had died just a few weeks before the accident, and that she has grandchildren with special needs, who she was particularly worried about after the accident.

“I just hope she’s going to be OK,” Smith said after the accident. “All of that is a pretty bad deal.”

For a few moments on Thursday, the “bad deal” part was forgotten as the two men reunited with the woman they had saved and accepted her thanks.

“She told us she appreciated us saving her life,” Smith said. “That means a lot to us.”