CARIBOU, Maine — Just after 10 p.m. on May 15 last year, Steve Rusnack of St. John Plantation came upon a car accident on Route 161 in St. Francis, where the driver had lost control and flipped over his vehicle.
As Rusnack approached, he saw a flicker of flame rise from under the wrecked car.
What Rusnack and local resident Calvin Jandreau did next not only saved the life of the driver but also earned them an American Red Cross Real Heroes Award from the Aroostook chapter of the agency.
Lucas Gendreau, a St. David teenager who was 16 years old last year when he rescued a capsized kayaker on Long Lake in Sinclair, also was among those presented hero awards earlier this month during a ceremony in Caribou.
On Tuesday, Rusnack recalled running to the burning car and finding a man unconscious and trapped in the bottom of the car.
“I knew immediately that I would not be able to get him out on my own,” he said. “So I just started yelling for help and it wasn’t long before Calvin Jandreau came running out of his house and we began working together.”
As the man remained unconscious, the two broke out windows and tugged and pulled at doors. All the while, the flames were engulfing more of the car. Rusnack said that Jandreau somehow got the door open, and the two tried to drag the man, who was heavyset, from the car.
“I still don’t know how Calvin got that door open, because it wouldn’t budge for me earlier,” Rusnack said. “We started grabbing the driver, but he was so bloody our hands were slipping off. Finally, we were able to get a good handle on his clothes and dragged him out.”
Less than 15 seconds later, the entire car was an inferno.
Rusnack said the driver did not regain consciousness until emergency responders and members of the St. Francis Fire Department arrived approximately 10 minutes later. The victim was taken to Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent and later transferred to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor with injuries that were not considered life threatening.
Rusnack said he was surprised to receive the award, and mainly just happy that everyone emerged unscathed.
The Red Cross and Rusnack preferred not naming the victim, but Rusnack said he has since talked to the driver, who has children who attend school with his own.
“His child told mine, ‘Your daddy saved my daddy’s life,’” Rusnack said.
Gendreau, who is now 17, also was recognized with a young hero award this month for pulling the kayaker out of Long Lake after his boat capsized on June 9, 2014.
The Ohio man had been visiting the area with his wife, Gendreau recalled this week, and the teen’s aunt called his family looking for someone with a boat. The aunt told them that a woman who had been kayaking with her husband had paddled back in toward shore while screaming for someone to help her husband. After 911 was called, Gendreau took off toward the kayak on the family Sea-Doo jet boat.
“It was cold and the lake was rough that day,” the teen said. “At first, I could not find him, but then I saw him holding the kayak. He was pale and shivering, and he was so grateful.”
The man was able to climb aboard on his own, and Gendreau held on to both him and the kayak until the man was reunited with his wife back on shore.
The man had been in the water for approximately 30 minutes and was very cold. Officials noted that the incident could have been tragic if the teen had not intervened because of the water conditions, the amount of time the man was in the water and the distance first responders had to travel.
Gendreau said the man was checked out by emergency responders, but the teen never caught his full name or got a chance to speak to him again after bringing him to safety.
Gendreau said he did not think twice about hopping on the Sea-Doo that day.
“I was just glad I found him,” he said.