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Man's past spurs heroic fire rescue in Londonderry

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 26. 2013 10:54PM
Earl Wickline of Londonderry talks about saving a man and his dog from a burning car early on Saturday morning. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

LONDONDERRY - He just couldn't watch it happen again.

That's what galvanized 63-year-old Earl Wickline of Londonderry to reach into a burning Jeep Wrangler Saturday morning, bat out the flames licking the unconscious driver's clothing and pull the much larger man out of the vehicle.

Police credit Wickline and other Good Samaritans who responded to the single-vehicle crash on Mammoth Road early Saturday morning with saving the life of the driver, identified as Robert Braley, 58, of Londonderry.

It all began about 6:15 a.m. Police got a report of a crash near 393 Mammoth Road, with a vehicle on fire and the occupant trapped inside.

Wickline was on his way to work; he's a supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service at a Nashua mail-sorting center. As he pulled onto Mammoth Road, he said, "I could smell something burning, but it wasn't wood."

Then he saw the Wrangler, off the road and smashed into a tree, and he pulled over.

"I went to the driver's side, and you couldn't see in it because there was so much smoke and fire," he recalled. "I put my hand in and I could feel there was somebody in there."

Flames were spreading from the back of the Jeep to the front.

Nineteen-year-old Apryl Norris and her family live across the street from the crash scene; they ran for fire extinguishers and handed one to Wickline. "I tried to put the fire out in the back," he said. "The back seat was all in flames."

Asked what made him act, Wickline recounted how, as an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter, he was at the scene of a house fire that killed a family.

"All your life, you feel like there's something more you could have done or should have done," he said.

"I couldn't go through that again."

Wickline couldn't budge the man from the driver's side of the Jeep, so he ran around to the passenger side and yanked open the door. There was the driver's dog, on the floor.

"He had a bandana around his neck, looking at me," Wickline said. "His face was right there. Not crying. Not barking. Not growling."

The dog hopped out of the vehicle, and Wickline reached for the driver, whose clothing was catching fire.

So he batted out the flames with his bare hand, then grabbed the man under his arms. "And he just slid right out into the snow."

By then, police had arrived. Sgt. Patrick Cheetham and Officers Jake King and Adam Lane helped move the unconscious driver away from the still-burning vehicle.

Braley was flown to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which was not releasing his condition last night. But Police Lt. Ryan Kearney said Braley's son was at the hospital and told police that Braley was "doing remarkably well at this time."

After the crash, Police Officer Shannon Sargent brought the victim's dog, which had minor injuries, to a Manchester emergency veterinary clinic, and police said the animal was doing fine.

Wickline walked away from firefighting that long-ago day. "After that fire, I could never do it again." But as a man of deep faith, he believes God had a purpose for him Saturday morning. "I was there for a reason."

After the crash, Wickline realized he had blisters on his hand from patting out the flames. But he also felt a burden he had carried his whole adult life, ever since that fatal fire, had lifted. "It's like, OK, I fixed it," he said.

Londonderry police Lt. Kevin Cavallaro said Wickline is a hero. "There's no doubt in my mind, he saved the gentleman."

He also commended Apryl Norris for her actions at the scene.

Cavallaro said police aren't certain what caused the crash. There was a layer of snow on the roadway, but they're also looking into whether the driver suffered some sort of medical condition. "We're hoping he's going to be able to tell us," Cavallaro said.

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