10 April 2013
Car explodes shortly after
On the way home from Easter dinner at a restaurant in Charlottesville, the Diemer family drove eastbound on Rt. 53 in their Dodge Caravan toward their Lake Monticello home. The image awaiting them when they turned the corner that March 31 afternoon was heart stopping.
“As soon as I came around the turn I saw the vehicle off the road and realized that it was on fire,” said Deborah Diemer, who was driving with her husband, two grown daughters and three grandchildren. Before she knew it, her husband Steven, and daughters Shawna and Jenna were out of the van, running toward the burning vehicle.
“I was looking at the car as I was running. You could see the flames in front and just a silhouette of a head in the car,” said Shawna Diemer. “That’s when I realized there was somebody in there.”
From afar, both Jenna and Shawna thought the white car was a two-door, but as they approached it they realized the four-door vehicle was severely compacted by the impact of hitting two trees.
“The car shattered. There wasn’t much left,” said Steven Diemer.
“We jumped inside the car. We were prying with anything we could find,”said Jenna Brandon, the Diemer’s eldest daughter. “I got in there and was trying to kick the door open. Nothing was going to work.”
The man inside was Jon Hudson, a 47-year-old salesman and former bartender from Mechanicsville. He had been en route to a house to pet sit for a friend, when the car he was driving veered off the road and into a tree. Authorities have yet to determine what caused the accident.
Shawna describes Hudson as a big guy, “not fat, but big-boned, like a hockey player.” Yet, the three of them – Jenna, Shawna and Steven – are slight. None of them weigh more than 150 pounds. Without discussing it, they were trying to get Hudson out of the car by themselves. They felt they didn’t have a choice. Hudson was clearly injured – unconscious with blood coming from his mouth.
“I tried to speak with him and he started to moan. He just didn’t know what happened,” said Steven.
Steven had once seen a car go up in flames, and he knew they didn’t have much time.
“We didn’t pause enough time to make a call to 911, he had to get out of the car,” said Steven.
As Jenna pulled the key out of the ignition, she screamed, “We need to get one of those doors open! Hurry! Hurry!”
“I was trying with all my might, I was sore the next day,” said Steven.
“I could see the flames going towards the gas tank, going further and further. I was getting worried,” said Shawna.
Deborah Diemer was watching from the van with her the three toddler grandchildren in the car. As cars stopped, she flagged them down, looking for fire extinguishers.
Addaley, Shawna’s two-year-old daughter, turned to Deborah and said, “Momma’s in the car on fire!”
“I was feeling pretty scared myself, but I know I didn’t want the kids to panic. I wanted them to stay calm, so I said, ‘Papa won’t let anything happen,” said Deborah Diemer. “I just prayed the whole time.”
Other people stopped. When they saw the Diemers fighting to get Hudson out, they joined in the efforts.
“My job was packing mud into the fire to give us more time,” said Mark Roach, who was driving by and stopped to help. As the fire increased, Roach went to the passenger side window to talk to Hudson, as the Diemers switched strategies and tried to get him out of a window instead of opening a door.“I said, ‘if you do not help us, we can’t get you out.’ Like a miracle, he untangled his legs and myself and the women pulled him out of the car,” said Roach.
For Deborah, who was still watching from across the street, her family was too close for comfort.
“As they were pulling him out, the flames were coming through the car. At some point the interior burst into flames,” said Deborah Diemer.
The tires popped almost immediately after Hudson was removed.
“Everyone was screaming. By then there were a lot of people around, starting to gather. I was holding his neck stable,” said Jenna Brandon, who had been a lifeguard at Lake Monticello and a former nursing assistant to a paraplegic. “He was in and out. Every so often he would ask what happened again. He would try to move around. I would have to tell him all over again, ‘Jon, you were in an accident. We need to keep you stable. You need to stay still.’ He would shut his eyes and wake up again and jerk around and we would have to tell him everything all over again.’”
Even though Hudson was now removed from the car and being stabilized by the Diemers across the road, the fire continued to grow. They could feel the heat beginning to burn their skin. They knew they had to move farther away, but didn’t know how to move a nearly unconscious Hudson safely.
“I yelled for as many guys as possible. I said, ‘I need men! I need men who are going to try to keep this guy flat!’” said Jenna Brandon. A few men from the crowd started sauntering towards her. “I said, ‘get over here! Now!’ I was in shock that they were just walking and my skin was burning.”
The Diemers, together with two other men, moved Hudson another 40 feet away. Within seconds after moving Hudson, the car exploded. Five minutes after the car exploded, a fire engine arrived. Had they not intervened, Hudson would have surely died.
After Hudson was safely in an ambulance, the Diemers gave their statement to police and went home. But, images of that Easter afternoon stick with them.
“The pain that was on his face. He was in a lot of pain. I remember his face and how much pain he was in,” said Steven.
Addaley, Shawna’s daughter who watched her mom leap into a burning car, still has nightmares. But, Uriah and Uriel, Jenna’s two young boys, relive the day like their mom is a comic book superhero. “Mommy! You saved a man!”
All three of them are amazed at the combination of circumstances that happened to put them in the right place at the right time. They had wanted to leave the restaurant where they ate Easter dinner earlier, but a fountain in the lobby distracted the children.
Furthermore, the fact that they decided to carpool also made a difference, since Deborah was able to watch the kids while her husband and daughters jumped out to help.
“If I was with my kids, on my own, I don’t know what I could do. I wouldn’t have been able to leave my kids in the car by themselves, especially on 53,”said Shawna Diemer.
A week later the Diemers still haven’t been able to see Hudson and check on his condition, but they look forward to the day when they can.
“I was just so thankful that God used me in that way. I hope that we get to see the end result – to see him alive and well – and that everything we did truly was for a reason,” said Jenna Brandon. “God pulled him out, and he used us to do it. I feel honored to be used in that way.”
Hudson’s uncle, Stuart Cook, said the Diemers were “truly good Samaritans who deserve appreciation from the family.”
Cook said no one has yet been able to talk to his nephew who is on a ventilator at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Hudson also is suffering from broken vertebrae in his back, Cook said.
“He’s stable but in very, very serious condition. He’s got a long road of recovery to go,” said Cook.