“You don’t understand what kind of feelings you can have for another human being until someone saves your life.”

It seems like an understatement to say that surviving a fiery car crash is life-changing. Saying ‘Thank you’ to the person who saves you means the world, according to Wilton resident Russ Kohl, who was pulled from a burning car on May 3 of this year.

The man who saved Kohl is Wiltonian Tom Dubin, who was recognized for his heroic act by the New Canaan Police two weeks ago. It was in reading the story GOOD Morning Wilton ran on Dubin’s account of the rescue that revealed to Kohl the identity of his rescuer.

“I certainly didn’t know what had happened until the next day, and until the next month starting to find out just who it was who was so heroic that evening to get me out of there before the fire spread, and ultimately would have led to a different result than we have today,” says Kohl. “There were all these rumors about who it might have been. Not until last week when the article was published about Tom’s commendation, did I find out who it was. I immediately tried to contact him.”

Kohl emphatically insists that he shouldn’t be the focus of attention. “It’s really not about me–the story is about Tom Dubin, who saved me, the guy who pulled me out of the car. I created the story obviously, getting into the accident, but he’s really the guy that we should be talking about here. I’m just happy to be alive.”

Despite both men living in Wilton, their paths had never crossed until that Wednesday evening in May. Dubin was one of a handful of people who came upon a car that had crashed head-first into a large tree on North Wilton Rd. in New Canaan, and the driver trapped, and unconscious, inside the car as flames shot up from the engine. Kohl, it would later be discovered, had swerved to avoid a deer. Dubin was the only one who stepped forward to brave the flames and try to get Kohl out. Luckily he did, because by the time emergency responders arrived on scene, fire had engulfed the passenger compartment–by reacting quickly and pulling Kohl out of the car when he did, Dubin saved Kohl’s life.

Meeting Face-to-Face

As soon as he learned Dubin’s identity, Kohl says he was compelled to connect with his rescuer.

“Tom lives about four minutes from me, and I drove by his house to see if he was there and he was not. So I called him and he was agreeable to meet. I’ll tell you, it was a really powerful moment when I did meet him. He’s a great guy, a really wonderful man. What he was able to do that evening, relative to keeping his head and making the determination that, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get this guy out of the car,’ but also he’s a family man. I met his daughter, his wife and son, and you can see he’s an upstanding, really wonderful human being. Again, I thank him for my life, I thank him on behalf of my family because my wife would not have a husband, and my two kids would not have a father if it were not for him.”

Their meeting was very moving for both men. Dubin, too, didn’t know the identity of the man he’d saved until Kohl reached out. Now he was able to fill in the blanks for Kohl, as they sat in Dubin’s backyard and talked over beers.

“He said, ‘Do you want to know what happened?'” Kohl laughs. “He told me about the events, from when he pulled up to the site, when he was able to get me out of harm’s way, and finally when he left after giving the police his statement. It was just, really, really powerful. It’s very rare to sit face-to-face, across a table and have a beer with somebody who saved your life, seven weeks earlier–I owe him everything.”

Kohl certainly knows just what Dubin risked in order to save him–and what would have happened if Dubin hadn’t put his own life in harm’s way to rescue a man he didn’t know.

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“I’m happy to have survived the accident, but I wouldn’t have if he didn’t step up, have a clear head, and just say, ‘We’ve got to get this guy out of the car.’ I’ve been at accident scenes, and you’re not supposed to move people because you don’t know how badly they’re injured. But he looked at the flames and said, ‘I don’t care what condition this guy is in, or what might happen if I pull him out, but I know what’s going to happen if I don’t pull him out.”

Kohl says since he learned about who rescued him, he’s been thinking a lot the type of person who would be willing to put their own life on the line to save someone else.

“If he had waited for police to arrive, probably five minutes later, it probably would have been too late, it would have been all over. What he did as a citizen, going out of his way to step in and take charge–and act. It’s something we should all look at and think about, ‘How would I react in that situation?’ Sometimes, like in this case, you don’t have a lot of time to think. You just have to look at the moment and say, ‘Okay, I am going to do something here.’ We need more people in the world like Tom, to do the right thing and think clearheaded and get people out of harm’s way.”

Kohl has also been fascinated at how Dubin had been inspired to act by remembering the story of Wilton police officers who had done something similar just a few months before–brave the flames of a car on fire to pull out the driver and save his life. He hopes Dubin’s selfless act might inspire others who might be faced with a similar situation someday.

“That’s why the world needs more people like him. He was obviously deeply impacted by what he had heard about the Wilton Police. You hope people aren’t necessarily faced with those situations, but if they are, they’ll act,” Kohl says.

Similarly, Dubin credited law enforcement officers with being an inspiration when he accepted the commendation.

“It took me the better part of 55 years to do one thing remotely heroic, and I am acutely aware that in this room that there are people who dedicate their lives, who give their whole lives and their careers and on a daily basis do the extraordinary, and that puts this into context for me,” he said.

Kohl regrets that he didn’t know about Dubin until after the award was bestowed. “I just wish I knew who it was before he got that commendation because I would have been the first one there.”

Gratitude for Others Who Helped

While Kohl says that Dubin is the primary focus of his gratitude, he has many other people to thank, including the many first responders who took over once they got on scene.

“Tom’s the primary focus of my thanks. But I can’t thank the New Canaan Police, the EMTs, the firemen and all the other first responders for their roles in this whole thing too. My hat’s off to them for their role in making sure I’m talking to you today. They got me to the hospital, saving my life along the way. And my whole team of doctors, that I’ve been dealing with,” he says.

Kohl credits the support he has gotten from friends and family with helping him recover so quickly.

“The amount of support I’ve had from friends, in terms of prayers, positive feelings of healing and support that have come from those who are religious and non-religious, it’s tremendous. I healed very quickly. I’m walking without a cane, now. I’ll be able to do the things I like to do athletically–I’m already doing some things, I’ve already played a couple of holes of golf and caught a couple of stripers down at the sound. I’m not 100% but I’m able to do things thanks to the entire support team of family and friends and the wishes of healing that just poured in for the last two months. You can feel it, really feel it. If I did not have that structure of love and support, who knows, I’d probably still be in a wheelchair right now,” he says.

He reiterates that above everything else, Dubin is the hero and the one who the story is really about.

“It’s been an amazing journey, let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but mine is a happy ending. I’m blessed for how it’s turned out. But you don’t really know until you go through something like this. And you don’t understand what kind of feelings you can have for another human being until someone saves your life.”

Kohl says that while the accident brought them together, he and Dubin will have a connection that will be bigger than the events of May 3. The two men are planning on getting their families together and Kohl says he’s found a long-term friend in his rescuer.

“I look forward to that, getting to know him more as a person and a family man, than just the guy that pulled me out of a burning car,” says Kohl. “I could tell when I met him and just to have a chance to give him a big hug, shake his hand and have a beer. And just talk about what happened. He’s just a great guy. It’s not the optimum way to meet someone, but I’m glad were brought together and I look forward to spending more time with him, getting to know him and his family.”