Industry Member Receives Distinguished Award for Heroism

Winner Heroism

After 18 months of research, careful vetting and deliberation by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, Jeffrey Garrett, national sales manager for Aquamatic Cover Systems, was awarded the Carnegie Medal for extraordinary heroism on June 22, 2020.

Since 1904, The Carnegie Medal has been presented to those who risk their lives to an exceptional degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others.

The confrontation with death that resulted in the award began with the sound of a crash outside Garrett’s home in Elk Grove, Calif., as he slept in darkness on an early Sunday morning, Oct. 21, 2018.

“At first I was confused,” Garrett begins. “Since there was no squeal of tires or anything, I wasn’t even sure if the sound was a car accident. I got up, got some clothes on, walked into my backyard and looked over the wall. I couldn’t see or hear much of anything at that point, so I started walking back into the house. Suddenly I heard someone coughing and choking on smoke on the other side of my property. So I ran toward the sound and looked over the wall and there it was — the engine was on fire, and someone was restrained by a seatbelt in the passenger seat but leaning out, trying to get out of the smoke.

“There was an immediate sense of adrenaline — and fear, honestly. I was afraid of what I was going to see inside the cab. I knew there were some bad injuries. I was more afraid of that than the fire, but there were a couple of moments inside the event where I kind of blacked out. I don’t recall going over the wall, but obviously I got there, because I ended up on my rear.”

The wall that Garrett references isn’t a typical gate or fence that some people might envision in a backyard — it’s a cinder block sound wall separating his house from Laguna Boulevard. Though it’s only about 7 feet high on his side, the same can’t be said for the opposite side, where there’s a significant drop down to the walkway along Elk Grove Road.

“I didn’t stick the landing. I fell on the other side, so it’s kind of weird that I don’t remember actually going over the wall. But after that it was just pure adrenaline, because it was very obvious what was happening and what had to be done.”

Crisis Amid Flames

In extreme situations, with everything moving fast, the mind attempts to slow it all down. Even as his thoughts were being blacked out by the sense of exigence, Garrett’s memories of that day are vivid.

“I’ll never forget any of it, really; what I saw, what happened. What sticks with me the most is the young man in the passenger seat, Drew. He literally was the bravest person I had ever seen, and the only way I could describe it was cinematic bravery. He displayed the kind of courage you only see in the movies. I went to him first for obvious reasons — he was the one that had his door open, he was the one I could see, and as I was leaning over his body to try and unlatch his seatbelt because he couldn’t get it off, he started slapping my arm, pushing me away, saying ‘No, no, help her, help her first.’ And while he was doing that, I realized I could hear very faint, low cries in the back seat, and that’s where his mom was.

“He made me go help her first and so I did. That took significant time too, because her buckle was all filled with broken glass, and she was exceptionally hurt. I don’t want to go into details, but she was wounded, so it took a while to get her out and off to the side, and after doing that I came back to get Drew out of the passenger seat, and that’s when I heard the father, who I couldn’t see because of the airbags.

“He had been unconscious the entire time until now. He cried out in pain, and because the fire was already so large and there was so much smoke, I was afraid he was burning. So I left Drew again and I ran around to the other side to help his father in the driver’s seat, and the door was stuck so I just pushed it open real hard and that revealed that the fire was already burning there on the driver’s side floor, and it was all around his legs.”

Garrett describes these scenes in a way that is calm and controlled. His voice never falters even as the narrative reaches its most perilous moments.

“His leg was literally in the fire at that point, but not on fire. So I grabbed his leg and pulled it out and held his leg up out of the flame until I could figure out what to do. I finally realized I had no choice, and I had to make it quick because I didn’t have a knife to cut the seatbelt. I had to go in over him and over the flames and get him undone. Luckily, I got the seatbelt on the first try. I took hold of his arms, pulled him out and leaned him up against a tree by the side of the road, and then turned around, for the third time, to get Drew. At that point he had thrown himself out, but I didn’t know at the time how hard that had been.”

Garrett would soon learn that for years prior to the accident, Drew had been paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a medical condition. Throughout the ordeal, Drew had been acting with the knowledge that he would likely be unable to save himself.

“So he was sitting there without the use of his legs,” Garrett continues, “face-to-face with a large and growing engine fire, and still forced me to help the others first. And that’s what struck me so much. He was in a life or death situation — it really felt like every second was the last one, and in fact the whole cab went up in flames shortly after they all got out — but Drew waited, knowing it could have cost him his life.”

The Carnegie Medal is given to those who risk their lives in the act of saving others. Some of those who were honored in this year’s class received their award posthumously. That group might have included Garrett.

As for that decisive moment when a person decides whether to risk everything or step back, Garrett says, “I think most people would do the same thing just because the situation demanded it. If I didn’t, then the things that would have happened to these people would have been terrible. So you feel that, and your adrenaline kicks in and you just do it.

“But the award is something that I’m very proud of,” he concludes, “because it represents helping people.”

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