For Kelly Winters, a normal morning means waking up at just before 5 a.m. at his Chapin home to get ready for his commute to Providence Hospital, where he works as a senior charge nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit.
Winters said normally by the time he gets up, the coffee machine is already brewing a fresh pot thanks to its automatic setting. Although he doesn’t drink coffee, his wife does, and she is just getting up to begin her morning by the time Winters is about to head out of the door.
“I give her the coffee, give her a hug and head off to work,” Winters said. “That’s exactly what happened yesterday as well.”
But the rest of the morning on May 27 was very different for Winters.
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He ended up in the middle of Wednesday’s fiery 10-vehicle collision along I-26 near St. Andrews – and saving a life outside of his normal hospital setting.
Winters was traveling on I-26 East toward the hospital when he was forced to stop just after the Piney Grove exit. A Richland County sheriff’s deputy and another vehicle had been side-swiped by an 18-wheeler and pushed into the concrete median.
His prior years of experience as an upstate-New York paramedic as well as a Navy and civilian firefighter allowed him to remain calm throughout the situation, he said.
Winters got out of his vehicle and approached the deputy and the other driver to make sure they were OK.
As Winters helped sheriff’s deputy John Baker exit his vehicle they were suddenly alerted to a loud noise coming from behind them.
“It was this 18-wheeler tanker truck, already on the concrete median, just sliding straight at us,” Winters said. “Flames were already shooting out ... So, we looked at each other and both said ‘Run.’ We ran like the devil was behind us.”
Winters said he and Baker got a few hundred feet away from the fuel tanker, which was carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline, when he heard a woman’s voice calling for help.
“I turned around and started running back toward the tanker truck, and I can see it’s on its side,” Winters said. “There is someone standing in the truck with their head poking out of the passenger side window. It was a woman screaming for help.”
Winters and Baker climbed on top of the cab and tried to pull the driver from the cab of the truck but couldn’t. By this time, flames were already reaching the door on which they were standing. That was when Winters noticed the front windshield was slightly dislodged.
“I jumped off the top of the truck, dropped down to the windshield, kicked it about two or three times to dislodge it some more,” Winters said. “I was able to get my hands in and pull it back out and bent it in half so there was a passageway through the windshield at the bottom.”
By that time the flames became too hot for Winters and Baker to stay close to the vehicle. They began urging the woman to crawl through the windshield and to the safety of their helping hands.
They each grabbed one of her arms and began to run.
As they ran, they heard a series of explosions behind them.
“We didn’t know what they were. Be it tires going off, gas tank, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get me, her and John away from that truck, and that’s exactly what we did,” Winters said.
Although the fire would cause traffic to be delayed for hours following the collision, there were no fatalities or life-threatening injuries reported. Lance Cpl. David Jones, a South Carolina Highway Patrol spokesman, said the 177 square yards of severely damaged roadway has been reopened to traffic. The circumstances surrounding the collision are still being investigated.
Four of 10 drivers went to hospitals. Remarkably, say folks at the scene, there were no deaths and no life-threatening injuries.
Winters only sustained minor scratches to his forearms from pulling at the tanker’s windshield. However, his car, phone, wallet and wife’s engagement ring, which he was taking to a shop to be resized, melted in the flames.
Winters said when he came home to tell his wife the story, he figured she would be mad that he made such risky move to save another.
“She gave me a really big, long hug, and it really made the day,” Winters said.
And he gets to watch his daughter graduate from Chapin High on June 4.
“You do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it,” he said. “I would want someone to grab my wife out of the car. How could I not be there when somebody else needed it?”
Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305.