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At 12:15 p.m. last Oct. 11 in Santee, Amanda Nelson had just returned home from the gym. County juvenile probation officer Michael Keeley was on a call with the parent of a client. Legal secretary Allison Rea was working at her home computer, and Navy nurse David Antico was washing dishes by the kitchen window.
Suddenly their lives, and those of their neighbors, were shaken by the horrific whining sound of a plummeting plane, then an explosion that rattled their homes like a detonating bomb.
A Cessna C340 piloted by Dr. Sugata Das, a cardiologist who worked in Yuma, Ariz., had crashed at Greencastle and Jeremy streets enroute to Montgomery Field. Investigating officials determined that the plane initially struck a UPS truck, slicing it in half, then hit a car parked at the curb, a truck and boat in a driveway to its right and plowed into two houses, triggering a massive explosion that catapulted a fire ball and a plume of black acrid smoke into the air.
Keeley, Rea, Nelson and her husband, all neighbors on adjacent Grand Fork Drive, immediately raced barefoot from their homes toward the belching smoke to help. None stopped to put on shoes. Antico joined them from his house on Cleary Street.
One home was destroyed, and the house next door was half demolished and on fire. They ran to a window and spied a woman inside. Maria Morris,70, was calling for her dog, Roxy, but the neighbors persuaded her to come to the window where they helped her climb out.
“It’s important that you get out now,” Keeley told her. Then they could see about getting her dog.
Her hair, hands, neck and pantlegs were singed. They later learned that her husband, Phil, 75, had gone to the back of the house in a futile search for the dog. Flames blocked his return, so he went out a back door.
Nearby resident Shawn Purvis heard screaming from the back yard. He and another man tore down a fence and carried Phil, who was severely burned, to the street. Roxy, they later learned, didn’t make it out of the inferno.
After Maria’s rescue, Rea ran from house to house knocking on doors and getting people to come outside.
Nelson, Keeley, Rea, Antico and Purvis will be recognized as heroes for their quick-thinking action at the Burn Institute’s Annual Spirit of Courage Awards at the Bahia Resort in Mission Beach on May 5. Other citizen heroes also will be honored for pulling victims out of house and garage fires, burning vehicles and a crashed motorcycle in flames.
Those at the Santee disaster site will tell you there were many more neighborhood heroes that day, some of whom remain anonymous and others who declined recognition.
“I’m just glad I was home and was able to help out as much as I could,” says Nelson, who recorded the chaos on her cellphone. She couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights afterward and had qualms about getting on an airplane for a planned flight to Utah a few days later. “When I hear planes going over the house now, I pause.”
For days after the crash, she and husband Donnie, who also helped that day, Keeley and Rea talked and texted to one another to cope with the memories, nightmares and anxiety. Despite all being barefoot at the site littered with shattered glass and crash debris, not one was injured.
At the scene, Keeley phoned Jim Slaff, the son of Maria and Phil Morris, who were sitting on the couch watching TV when the Cessna plowed into their house. Slaff, who lives near San Diego State University, arrived at the crash site a few minutes later.
His mother had third-degree burns over 10 percent of her body, and his stepdad, who had used his hands to extinguish the flames in his wife’s hair, suffered burns over 30 percent of his body. Slaff’s mother was treated and released within a couple of months, but Phil’s injuries kept him hospitalized until early last month.
They are now staying with Slaff. “Their lives have been uprooted,” he says. “Everything they worked for is gone and their pet is gone. … They’re lucky to be alive and grateful for that, but the future is filled with uncertainty.”
Nevertheless, they’re optimistic and working with an architect on plans to rebuild their house, where Phil had lived for 30 years, around the stone fireplace that remains.
Luckily, the couple who own the house destroyed next door, Cody and Courtney Campbell, were not home at the time of the crash. They had just finished a home remodel a day or so before, neighbors said.
The city of Santee offered to waive permit fees and fast-track construction approvals, and their home already is being rebuilt.
Work has yet to begin on the charred remains of the Morris home, which is guarded by a chain-link fence.
Nelson spotted a family with three kids the other day pulling weeds that had sprouted around the fence — another example of neighbors anonymously helping neighbors.
Despite the awards, the residents don’t feel like heroes. Even though they ran toward an inferno without even taking time to slip on shoes, they downplay any praise.
They were doing what neighbors do, they say.
Antico is very shy about the Burn Institute honor: “I’m humbled and appreciative. I’m not in it for the recognition. I was just helping a neighbor.”
“It’s a little embarrassing,” says Rea. “I’m not used to all the attention, but it sends a positive message to others not to be scared and to do something positive to try to help someone.”
For Keeley, the accident posed an impromptu test that he passed. Last September, five men living in a group transitional home had stopped their car to rescue a couple in their 90s from a burning car on I-8 in Lakeside, oblivious to the fear of harm from an exploding gas tank.
“I wondered if I would do that,” he said. Now he knows the answer: He did. “It gave me a huge sense of relief to check off my bucket list that, if I was tested, I would respond and help someone.”
Other Spirit of Courage honorees, who braved fire to aid victims, include businessman Marc Burnett, Ligregory Crawford and Fadi Moasa, Marty Martinez, police officer Ross Gallagher and off-duty Barona firefighter Nicholas Bohr.
There’s one very deserving hero who won’t be recognized on May 5, notes Nelson. That is Steve Krueger, the beloved, 30-year UPS delivery worker killed when the plane incinerated his mail truck.
“He saved Phil and Maria for sure,” she says. Nelson believes, based on the angle of the impact with his UPS truck, the plane was deflected slightly to the right, so it crashed into the right side of the Morris house rather than through the front door.
“He and his truck saved the lives of two people,” she says.
Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com