The last thing you’d expect to discover while out on a drive is a car smashed into a tree, its engine engulfed in flames. And almost certainly, you don’t get up in the morning with the thought, “Today, I’m going to save someone’s life.”
But two months ago, on an everyday drive to pick up his son after school, that’s exactly what Wilton resident Tom Dubin did–save another man’s life by pulling him out of a burning car, risking his own life to do so. Today, the New Canaan Police will be awarding Dubin with a commendation for his heroic actions.
Looking back to May 3, the day of the rescue, Dubin is matter-of-fact as he recounts what happened when he came upon an accident on North Wilton Rd. in New Canaan.
“I had picked up my son, Jonah, from his school bus stop off the Merritt at 6:30 p.m. and we were driving home. We were the fifth car to arrive at the crash–a car had driven straight into a tree and was pretty crumpled, its hood was popped up, and the engine was on fire,” he recalls.
The other motorists who had stopped had already called 9-1-1, but hadn’t tried to get close enough to the burning vehicle.
“Everyone was keeping their distance from the car and fire–I guess we’ve all seen too many movies with exploding cars. I told my son to stay by our car, and I walked over to check on the driver.”
Dubin was the only one who dared get close, and while he says he did give it a second thought, he didn’t waste time about it.
“It was pretty clear the fire was going to spread pretty quickly–more quickly than [the driver] had time for. Time was clearly of the essence.”
The adrenaline kicked in, and all thoughts of self-preservation were set aside.
“He was unconscious, his head lying on the steering wheel, [with] no airbag. It was apparent that the fire was going to continue spreading and that emergency response was unlikely to arrive in time to remove the driver. I tried to wake him up a couple times, but couldn’t. I tried the driver’s door, but it was jammed closed. Then I went to the passenger side and was able to get that door open, but realized there was no way to pull the driver over the center console. So I went back to the driver’s side and after several good yanks that door ultimately came open. But I couldn’t reach his seat belt release.”
Dubin was determined as he worked to free the unconscious man.
“I was really focused on, How am I going to get him out? And keeping one eye toward the fire. I just thought, The driver has to be removed.”
As he worked he found inspiration in a news story he remembered reading.
“One thing that did go through my head, I recall months ago a similar thing happened in Wilton. The story about the Wilton cops who had done something like this. That did go through my head for some reason, and I kept saying to myself, The driver has to be removed. So I think there’s something about carrying stories, people seeing how personal action can have impact.”
Dubin had to react, fast.
“I had to go back to the passenger side door and was able to pop the belt open from that angle. Once the belt was released, I ran back to the driver’s side and was able to get my arms under his, and was able to drag him out of his car. Fortunately, the fire didn’t encroach into the cabin area until shortly after I got him out,” he says.
Dubin estimates it took about 3-4 minutes to get the man free.
As he dragged the driver about 10 feet away from the burning wreck, the other bystanders ran over to help pull the man to safety. Dubin grabbed a blanket from his car and stayed with the victim, who remained unresponsive. One of the other bystanders was a nurse and they worked to offer the driver first aid until emergency responders arrived.
Dubin says it’s a good thing he didn’t wait for emergency responders to get to the accident scene, which took at least another 4-5 minutes.
“It would have been too late. By the time the first cop arrived, we’d already gotten him out. We looked over at the car and the fire was already in the passenger cabin. He would have been…” his voice trails off.
Dubin and his son gave statements to the police, and watched as the firefighters worked to extinguish the flames.
“It occurred to me after about 30 minutes, I really ought to call my wife, because we were going to be late for dinner. And trying to put into words what had happened, to say, ‘Sorry we’re going to be late, I had to stop and save a guy’s life.’ It’s like, really??” he laughs.
The seriously injured driver, also a Wilton resident, did survive, thanks to Dubin’s fast action. While New Canaan Police haven’t shared the name of the driver with him, Dubin says they have told him the man he saved will be okay.
“I’m really pleased to hear that, because the last time we all saw him, he was not in good shape.”
One fact that isn’t lost on Dubin is that he was in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t think in terms of karma, but I was really pleased to be part of the circumstance. It made me feel good about doing something, to be able to do something to help. I’m sure for years I’ll think about the experience and try to process it. I think about what is the right thing for a person to do in that circumstance,” he says.
And while he’s flattered to be receiving the commendation from the New Canaan Police Department, he downplays his heroism.
“I googled ‘car explosions’ when I got home, and was relieved to learn that burning cars usually don’t explode except in movies. It was less heroic than I thought at the time,” he laughs.
Heroic or not, there’s something to be said for Dubin’s perspective about it all.
“It seemed natural, it just seemed like the right thing to do. You hope anybody would do it,” he says.