It was an unremarkable June Saturday on the Sea to Sky highway when off-duty Whistler firefighter Dan Ross had a gut feeling about the people lining the road, staring at a ditch.
Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the scene which unfolded before his eyes — a car crushed upside down, pinned against trees, flames licking up the sides, the occupants trapped within.
Heading into his third year with Whistler Fire Rescue Services, Ross is used to heading into danger... with the full force of his colleagues and his gear backing him up.
That June day he was off-duty.
Instinctually, Ross grabbed the fire extinguisher he carries in his car, left his two young children with his girlfriend in the vehicle, and rushed to help.
That split-second response, which saved lives that day, was recognized last week when he was awarded the Fire Chief's Certificate of Recognition and Commendation at the Fire Service Awards during the Sept. 16 council meeting.
He was nominated by his fellow firefighters, many of whom were in the audience, along with his girlfriend, young daughter and son. They rose to a standing ovation when he accepted his award.
Ross, who admits to thinking a lot about that day, deflected the praise this week.
"They (Whistler Fire Rescue Services) can take any ordinary person and turn them into somebody capable of doing extraordinary things," he said.
As he ran to the overturned car in the ditch, he could see someone smashing the windows with a rock and heard someone yelling: "I need a knife."
Ross pulled out his ever-present pocketknife and handed it over to a fellow rescuer who he learned later was a firefighter from New Zealand.
The seatbelts were cut as Ross flooded the car with his fire extinguisher — the traditional gift from Whistler Fire Rescue Service after one year on the job.
Emptying the extinguisher, Ross pulled open the front door and the first passenger jumped out. The driver was helped out next.
But there were still three people trapped in the backseat with the drivers' side doors pinned against the trees, the other rear door jammed. Flames were now beginning to lick up the side of the car and the trees once again.
Ross reached inside the window and managed to undo the seatbelt of a third passenger. He realized then that they had to get them out anyway he could, so yanking them toward him he pulled them to safety.
The fifth passenger, a woman who appeared to be suffering from a spinal injury, was also extricated.
One minute later the tires began exploding and black smoke billowed over the highway just north of the Culliton Creek Bridge.
The events of that June day play over and over in Ross's head like a slow motion movie.
The oldest person in the vehicle, a man in his eighties, died at the scene. Two others were airlifted to hospital with serious injuries — one to Vancouver General Hospital and one to B.C. Children's Hospital.
Ross doesn't know much about the occupants, save they were from Richmond and one woman was called Gloria. He doesn't know where they were going, he doesn't know definitively why the car came off the road.
He doesn't know the fate of the injured and if they've recovered.
He does know, however, the outcome of the fatal accident could have been much different, had it not been for that fire extinguisher.
"It bought us some time and that seemed to be enough," said Ross, highlighting the number of people who were on scene and stopped to help.
"If I didn't have that job with the fire department... I would have been just another guy standing on the side of the road."
In her presentation, Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood had high praise for one of her rookie firefighters.
"He didn't hesitate to stop and provide assistance," she said. "He controlled the vehicle fire and assisted with the rescue of the occupants entrapped in the vehicle.
"I would like to award a Fire Chief Certificate of Commendation to firefighter Dan Ross for his rescue attempt reflecting the finest traditions of the fire service."
Firefighters honoured with service awards
Kirkwood also called out three firefighters who were awarded the Federal Exemplary Service Medal — Brian Buchholz for 20 years with the WFRS, Joseph Mooney for 20 years with WFRS and Garibaldi Fire Service, and Captain Chris Heppell with 20 years with WFRS.
The Provincial Long Service Medal was awarded to Deputy Fire Chief Chris Nelson for 25 years of service with WFRS.
Kirkwood also awarded a Fire Chief Certificate of Recognition to Acting Captain Keith Mellor for leading the WFRS' efforts in childhood education, burn awareness, fire prevention and general safety messages for Whistler's youngest children for more than 20 years.
Said Kirkwood: "Keith's evolving and infectious delivery, together with the genuine joy he displays in giving children their first safety message, is truly profound."
The Fire Service Awards come just days after the 13th anniversary of the World Trade Center bombing on Sept. 11.
More than 2,000 emergency responders were injured responding to the call for help, said Kirkwood, and 414 lost their lives.
Many more have since died from respiratory illness and cancers as the result of the rescue efforts.
"Here in Canada, cancer rates are more than 20 per cent higher in firefighters than the general pubic," said Kirkwood. "I can't imagine losing even one member of my team and this is a stark reminder of the sacrifice that emergency responders risk making."
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