Veteran pulled a family of 5 from a burning car on I-275
Capt. Sean VanAtter is neither arrogant nor humble about the save that made him famous enough to get his image on the side of a Firehouse Subs cup. He's matter-of-fact about it.
In addition to the distinct honor of having his story told on drink cups, VanAtter also was invited to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 14, 2003. It was there that then-Vice President Dick Cheney gave him the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor.
"Valor" is a powerful word to describe a person's actions. Somehow it still seems to come up short when describing how VanAtter earned the medal.
This story is part of Hillsborough County’s 50-for-50 Series, a historic review of some of the memorable events, dates, and people in the history of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, which was born on Aug. 27, 1973. About the Series: Hillsborough’s 50 for 50 Project Celebrates Fire Rescue Heroism, Heritage, History that show the growth, bravery, and specialized operations of Hillsborough County’s largest department.
They call Station 14 "The Big House" because, as one of the busiest stations in the County, it makes a rookie firefighter grow up fast. There's a board by the door to the apparatus bay with notches for all the times the station took 20 or more calls in 24 hours.
As hard as the men and women of Station 14 work, the save that made it famous didn't happen along Station 14's busy stretch of 131st Avenue in the University area. It happened just inside the Tampa city limits on I-275.
Capt. VanAtter was firefighter on Engine 14 at the time. However, he was called upon to drive that day when the rescue truck needed both paramedics in the back of the ambulance to help a patient. As often happens, once VanAtter got the patient to Tampa General Hospital, he was marooned on Davis Islands while the rescue crew checked in their patient.
Eager to rejoin his engine crew back at one of the busiest stations in the County, VanAtter jumped in a yellow cab (it was 2002) and the car slowly made its way up I-275 at rush hour.
The slow traffic ground to a halt near the Bird Street exit. It was there that VanAtter saw a fresh plume of black smoke climbing skyward from the lanes ahead of him near Busch Boulevard.
"I asked the cabbie if he had a fire extinguisher in the car and he shook his head," VanAtter said. "So I told him, 'When you get up to that smoke, you can pick me up there,' and I jumped out of the cab."
Then he started running toward the smoke.
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When VanAtter reached the scene, he saw a two-door car that had been rear ended and slammed into the interstate's center barrier. It was on fire and filled with smoke. A tanker truck was blocking the northbound lanes.
He asked the bystanders if anybody got out of the car. Before they could answer he saw fingers wiggling through the small crack of the sunroof.
He tried all the doors, but they were jammed, as always seems to happen when a vehicle is involved in an impact. He entered through the passenger window. Newspaper reports from the time indicate the truck's driver helped to break the glass. VanAtter and the truck driver pulled a woman out of the passenger seat. A nurse was among the bystanders and was able to check on her.
VanAtter was not wearing any protective gear like gloves, boots, or bunker gear because he was supposed to be in a cab on the way back to the station. He was wearing a T shirt.
He looked back into the car and found a small child about 2 years old on the console between the two seats. He pulled the little girl out of the car and handed her to another bystander.
VanAtter could hear sirens of the crews trying to get to the scene. He could also hear that they were not getting closer. They were stuck in the same traffic.
He had a 2-year-old at home at the time and another on the way. Pulling the toddler out of the car gave him an adrenaline shot.
The smoke was incredibly heavy by that point. VanAtter worked to free the man in the driver's seat, but could not get him loose.
VanAtter put his head in the car again and saw feet behind the passenger seat. It was a six-year-old child. VanAtter maneuvered the child out of the back of the car.
Before he could attempt to pull the driver from the car again, VanAtter saw a wrist and an ankle behind the driver's seat. It was another small child, about 8 years old. He made sure the nurse saw this child, as he was clearly very badly injured. Unfortunately, that child did not survive the crash.
VanAtter and other bystanders were finally able to get the driver out of the burning car by pulling him by his pants, VanAtter remembers.
Simple and matter-of-fact, the headline in the paper the next day read "Family saved from burning car; 1 dies."
VanAtter had been a firefighter for about seven years in 2002, but he had four years in the Marine Corps before that to prepare him for running toward the smoke.
During his time on active duty, he was dispatched to secure the U.S. Embassy in Panama over Christmas of 1989 during the U.S. invasion to unseat dictator Manuel Noriega. After his time in the Marines, VanAtter served in the Coast Guard reserves where he was deployed to Bahrain after the USS Cole was bombed in the fall of 2000, and then to New York Harbour after Sept. 11, 2001. He now serves in the United States Air Force reserves as a firearms instructor.
Aside from getting a "hero cup" recognizing his rescue at Firehouse Subs and a trip to the White House, VanAtter said the experience was routine. "I had dinner at the station that night with the crew."