Published June 12, 2010, in the Indiana Gazette.
Eugene Lingenfelter was meeting his girlfriend at Walmart to shop for supplies for her birthday party; Michael Scott was planning to stop for a fishing license before heading on to Yellow Creek State Park to spend his Memorial Day with his cousin.
But both men dropped their plans when they came across a fiery accident on Route 422, just east of Cunningham Road.
“Anytime there’s a wreck, I can’t drive off and leave it, especially when there was people getting hurt,” Lingenfelter said. “I would have done it anytime for anybody.”
State police in Indiana have reported that citizens who came upon the scene of the Memorial Day accident which claimed the life of 71-year-old Bernard Gress pulled his wife, Kathleen Gress, from the burning sport utility vehicle. But they didn’t name the good Samaritans.
But Greg Gress, the couple’s son, said Scott was one of the people who stepped up to help his mother. Lingenfelter called the Gazette Thursday morning, trying to find out how the woman was doing, and said he was the man who carried her out of the vehicle.
“They say you’re not supposed to touch somebody when there’s an accident until the paramedics get there, but when they’re screaming for help, I couldn’t listen to that. I couldn’t listen to somebody burn up in a car,” Lingenfelter said.
State police reported a Honda Odyssey driven by Lisa Hunker, 46, of North Apollo, crossed the centerline of the highway just before 1:30 p.m. on Memorial Day, colliding head-on with the SUV driven by Bernard Gress. Indiana County Coroner Michael Baker said Gress died of trauma injuries from the accident, and his wife was flown to Allegheny General Hospital with trauma and burn injuries.
Hunker and her passengers were also flown to Allegheny General Hospital.
District Attorney Tom Bianco said he is weighing whether to file charges in the crash.
Scott said he saw the collision happen just ahead of him, and told his cousin they had to stop to help. He found the Chevrolet SUV run up against an embankment, with the door jammed, but forced it open and started trying to free the woman in the passenger seat. Her husband had fallen over on top of her, he said. Recovering from recent back surgery, Scott said he couldn’t lift her.
“I’m begging for somebody to come over and help me,” he remembered.
Then he heard someone shouting not to move her until the paramedics arrived, and he noticed smoke coming from the engine. Leaving her, he grabbed his fishing bucket out of his car, filled it with water from a nearby creek and started trying to douse the fire. He noticed someone – Lingenfelter – calling for a fire extinguisher.
Lingenfelter, a mechanic who lives in Alaska, spends summers in Shelocta, where his late father lived. When he noticed the smoke, he said he started toward the car to see if he could find the problem and prevent the fire. When flames erupted, he said he started fighting it with a fire extinguisher.
“We kept it down as best we could, then … she started hollering, ’cause she was getting burnt,” Lingenfelter said. He said he turned his attention away from the fire and crawled in the back door to pull her out, he said.
“I pretty much was trying to keep my head on straight. I was just try to keep calm,” he said.
Still trying to fight the fire, Scott saw Lingenfelter carrying Kathleen Gress away from the SUV.
“I was grateful,” he said.
Both men checked for signs of life from Bernard Gress, who remained entrapped. He was dead, they said. They tried to pull his body free but could not. Scott singed the back of his arm, and Lingenfelter said he has a few marks on his legs from the burns he received.
But both men said the incident took more than a physical toll on them.
“It’s burnt into my mind,” Lingenfelter said.
“I couldn’t free him, so I had to sit back and watch … and that was terrible,” Scott said.
He said he had nightmares that night.
“We were kind of horrified by what we witnessed,” he said.
At the scene, state police and the coroner were assisted by volunteer firefighters from Indiana, Creekside and Elderton, and the county’s hazardous materials team.
Greg Gress said his mother is being treated in the burn center of Western Pennsylvania Hospital and is in critical but stable condition. She will have a third skin graft surgery sometime in the next week, and has just been taken off sedation medication, he said. He does not think she remembers the accident.
The family has decided to wait to hold a funeral for her husband until she is well enough to be there, he said. And in the meantime, he was hoping to meet some of the people who saved her life to thank them personally; his brother had already met with Scott, he said.
Bernard Gress was a Shelocta resident who graduated from Shannock Valley High School in 1957 and delivered The Indiana Gazette to subscribers in Elderton, Shelocta, Rural Valley, South Bend Township and Plumcreek Township. He and his wife had been married for 32 years, raised two sons, and had three grandchildren.