Fiery Rescue

Celadon President Steve Russell (left) and V.P. of Safety Bill Osborn(right) honored driver Stephen Burgert for his role in helping victims of a paint truck fire.

It’s not every day you see a burning vehicle driving alongside you on the road.

But when Stephen M. Burgert, a driver for Celadon since March 2002, saw a paint truck in distress on Interstate 465 South in Indianapolis in July, he knew just what to do.

He had heard on the CB about a van on fire that was trying to pull over. Then he saw a van in the lane next to him that was slowing down. “I thought, ‘This could be it,” says Burgert, 57, who has been driving for eight years.

The back door of the van came open briefly, and Burgert saw someone inside and a puff of smoke coming out. As he got closer, the door opened again, and this time Burgert saw flames. “I could see the entire inside of the van was on fire,” he says.

Immediately, Burgert put on his 4-way hazards to slow traffic and allow the van to pull over. He called 9-1-1 and pulled his truck over in front of the van, safely away from the fire.
“I knew I needed to stop, but I didn’t think it would be a good place 10 feet from a fire with my 200 gallons of diesel,” Burgert says. He remembered from his driver training that he also should leave room for emergency vehicles.

Three men came running from the paint truck, waving their arms to warn Burgert away from the blaze. Burgert could tell the men were badly burned. He aided them to the shade that his trailer provided and offered them water. One of the men felt like he might pass out, and Burgert retrieved a sheet from his truck so the man could lie down.

“I know a little bit about burns, and there’s really nothing you can do,” Burgert says. “All you can do is clean the wounds.”

Burgert and others who stopped to help stayed with the men and kept them calm to prevent them from going into shock while the paramedics aided 10 other men who had been riding in the back of the van. Thirteen men, professional painters, had been in the cargo area of the van when the fire started and ignited the paints, thinners and varnishes inside. Two men died in the fire, and the rest suffered second- and third-degree burns.

“From a driver’s point of view, I had often thought of what I would do if I came across such a situation,” Burgert says. “I’m glad I did think about it, because I knew what to do.”

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