Antonio Thorpe reached into the cab of the overturned SUV with one hand, trying to grab the man inside.
He held his other hand in the air, outstretched toward Interstate 77 with the hope drivers would see him and slow down, his girlfriend told Thorpes family members.
Thorpe, 34, was killed on I-77 northbound near Westinghouse Boulevard early Tuesday as he tried to pull Charlotte resident Ninh Nguyen, 64, to safety after a wreck.
A tractor-trailer plowed into Nguyens overturned SUV, killing both men.
Thorpes family and friends said Tuesday that they were saddened but not surprised by the actions of Thorpe, an athletic trainer who always strove to help others.
He wanted to be a superhero, said his younger brother, Dameko Thorpe, 32. As a child, we would always fantasize about being extraordinary, about being some kind of action figure or some kind of savior.
Dameko Thorpe said his older brother encountered Nguyens wrecked SUV late Monday when he was coming home from a friends house with his girlfriend.
The woman later recounted what happened to Antonio Thorpes family.
Troopers say the incident started when Nguyen and another man were involved in a wreck. Nguyen was headed home from his second-shift job at Ross Distribution Center in Fort Mill, S.C., when his car and a minivan sideswiped each other, according to authorities and Nguyens son.
The crash caused Nguyens SUV to flip onto its side in the middle of the traffic lanes.
Antonio Thorpe didnt witness the wreck, relatives said. But when the Fayetteville native saw the two overturned cars, he pulled over, ran to the SUV and began reaching for the driver.
Moments later, a tractor-trailer came by, pushing the SUV forward on the interstate, which isnt well-lit, and killing both men.
A media alert about the accident went out just before midnight, and WCNC-TV video from the scene showed a toppled vehicle on I-77 swarmed with first responders in the middle of the interstate.
I am so sorry, so sorry for the person who died helping my father, said Phong Nguyen, the 40-year-old son of the deceased SUV driver.
Heroic impulses guided life
Helping people was in Antonio Thorpes DNA, relatives and friends said.
The trainer had relocated to Charlotte from Fayetteville two years ago in an attempt to expand his athletic company, Bring It Fitness, to the Queen City.
His business partner, DAllen Pretlow, called Thorpe a fitness Yoda dedicated to making people feel better about themselves.
He wanted you to feel like you were being led and guided rather than dictated to, Pretlow said. When someone was down, Antonio became more of a teacher-counselor-best-friend than a trainer.
As an elementary school student, his mother remembered, Thorpe shot up from his chair and raced to help whenever someone dropped their books or pencils.
A family photograph, taken at a wedding, shows Thorpe opening his shirt to reveal a superhero costume underneath his button-down.
He is a hero to my family, Phong Nguyen told the Observer. I dont know what else to say. I dont know what to do.
A hard worker, near retirement
Phong Nguyen said his family is devastated by the loss of Thorpe and his father, Ninh, a hardworking man who planned to retire in October.
Ninh Nguyen immigrated to Charlotte from Vietnam in 1985 with his wife and two young sons.
He never took vacation time and worked long hours for Ross Stores, a discount clothing retailer with several distribution centers in the area.
Nguyen eventually earned enough to pay for most of his extended family to move to the Charlotte area, his son said.
He never enjoyed life. All he does is work and take care of the family, said Phong Nguyen, who is a nail technician in Charlotte. He was a great man who didnt drink or gamble. He was not a chit-chatter.
Police notified Ninh Nguyens relatives about the wreck around 3 a.m., his son said. They had few details about what caused the initial accident between Nguyen and the minivan.
Troopers had planned to release more details, but none were available late Tuesday.
Phong Nguyen said he is grateful to Antonio Thorpe for his attempt to save his fathers life. He plans to send a thank-you note and gift to Thorpes family.
You never expect anything like this to happen, Phong Nguyen said.
Wootson: 704-358-5046; Steele: 704-358-5067
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