My daughter started kindergarten this year which brought a host of fears – How would she adjust? Would she make friends? Would she eat lunch in the cafeteria? Would she be safe on the bus?
My car wasn’t one of those fears. The fire happened on the first day of the second week of school – the first Monday of the year. At 6:30 in the morning.
The freeway is two minutes from our home. I had just pulled onto the on ramp when I noticed a car right on my tail. I hit the gas, hoping that accelerating would distance myself from the other driver, and, perhaps, give him an opportunity to pass me as the freeway opened up to three lanes.
My car wasn’t accelerating.
The car swerved from behind me. The guy was now parallel to my car. I didn’t want to look at him (you can’t give road ragers an audience) so I kept my gaze ahead, focusing on the road and ignoring him. I pressed the pedal again.
The car wasn’t accelerating.
My daughter was singing along to Radio Disney, a morning ritual, oblivious to the potential conflict in the next lane. The man was now honking his horn; his window down.
And he was shouting.
Apprehensively, I roll my window down to hear what he was saying. Did I blow a flat? I was slightly concerned that the car wouldn’t accelerate. What was this guy saying?
He was driving a Jeep and leaning across the empty passenger seat to project his voice through the howling wind on the freeway.
“Dude! Your car is on fire!”
I gave a quizzical look.
“Your CAR is on FIRE!”
This was not something I had ever prepared for, or imagined could happen in real life – car fires only happen in the movies, right?
Movies. Car fires. Stuff exploding. What if my car is going to explode? What if I can’t get my daughter out? Who do I call? What do I do? WHAT DO I DO?
My brain exploded with a million questions and possible scenarios. On the inside I was melting. On the outside I was calm and composed. I coolly put my hazard lights on and pulled the car over to the right shoulder, threw it in park, cut the engine, and popped open my door.
My heart was racing.
“Sweetie. We are going to get out of the car and walk down the road a bit. Everything is okay,” I remember saying. Though my body was moving fast, I tried to keep my voice low and slow. If my daughter saw I was calm then chances were she would remain calm too.
“Why, Daddy?” she asked as I fumbled with her car seat straps.
“The car is on fire, honey,” I replied in a matter of fact tone. I was struggling with her car seat straps. I couldn’t get her unlatched. I COULDN’T GET HER UNLATCHED.
Movies. Car explosions. Gotta get her and run. How far? How far do I have to run? How much time do I have? HOW MUCH TIME DO I HAVE? WE HAVE TO RUN NOW!
I finally freed her from the stubborn straps. The man in the Jeep had also pulled over. He ran to my car and asked if there was anyone else inside. I said no, and started to run away from the car.
A truck pulled over and another man hopped out, grabbed a fire extinguisher seemingly out of nowhere, and put out the fire.
A fire that was traveling down my fuel line.
Two strangers at 6:30 in the morning saved our lives.
The only fear my daughter had that morning was that her stuffed animal could’ve burned up with the car. My mother-in-law picked her up from the freeway and got her to school. On time. The rest of her day was perfectly normal.
I waited on the freeway for my wife to pick me up. When she arrived, I sat in her passenger seat for a few moments. Silent.
I could have lost her. She could have been hurt. She could have –
I cried. I bawled.
I’d like to pretend that I acted like an action hero – that I pulled the door off the hinges and rescued her from the car. The truth is that the experience was humbling, which is why I still get a lump in my throat when I tell people:
My car caught on fire.