A firefighter and a truck driver are given awards for dashing to aid people in a burning car on I-275.
By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2002
TAMPA -- The fire chief handed Sean VanAtter a wooden plaque for helping save four lives and called him a hero.
VanAtter, like a husband being offered a second helping of vegetables from his generous mother-in-law, shook the chief's hand and turned to leave. Reporters had to coax him to speak.
"I was just doing my job -- that's it, I was doing what I was paid to do," said the 31-year-old firefighter. "If you want to call me a hero. . . ." He paused, weighing the word "hero."
VanAtter received a Meritorious Service Award Wednesday for helping rescue Jasmine and Richard Lacagnina and two of their children from a burning car last Thursday on Interstate 275. A third child, 4-year-old Jeremia, died in the accident.
VanAtter had just driven an ambulance to a hospital. He was taking a cab back to his fire station when he saw clouds of black smoke near the Busch Boulevard exit of I-275 northbound.
"Whatever you do, don't leave me," he told the cabdriver as he ran toward the crash.
Truck driver Aaron Madir of St. Petersburg kicked in one of the car's windows. Madir pulled the two unconscious parents from the car. VanAtter pulled out the three children.
Madir also received a Meritorious Service Award for his heroism, but he did not attend Wednesday's ceremony at Fire Station 14 in north Tampa.
Madir had no idea the county was honoring him, said his fiancee, Pamela Mccrea. "He said he didn't feel like a hero for what he did, but I'm sure he would've been happy to receive it," Mccrea, 29, told a Times reporter who called after the ceremony.
"Had it not been for the lightning quick reaction of these two individuals, the outcome could have been much different," said county fire and rescue Chief William Nesmith.
A third motorist, a nurse, ran up to help the burned children, but law enforcement officials never got her name.
VanAtter, a seven-year veteran of the force who said he dreamed of becoming a firefighter at age 7, also serves as a Coast Guard reservist. After the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, VanAtter spent 4-1/2 months protecting ports in Bahrain.
-- John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.