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Eight bystanders act when lives hang in the balance

St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue extends honors for saving a woman, a boy, boaters and others.

By MIKE SAEWITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


ST.PETERSBURG -- One man saved a 3-year-old from the bottom of a pool. Another pulled a woman from a burning car. They were two of the eight people honored last month by St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue for their heroics.

Recognizing the bravery of these people, Lt. Chris Bengivengo warns that there is a fine line between heroism and foolishness, that people should be careful when helping others.

"People will do things under extraordinary circumstances when it's maybe not the smartest thing to do," said Bengivengo, who cited running into a burning building as an example.

Here are some of their stories.

Dave LeClaire saw the smoke just as he crossed the Gandy Boulevard hump heading south on Interstate 275. It was a car on fire.

The back of the 1986 Toyota was in flames, and the glass from the car windows looked as if it had been cleanly removed. When he got closer, he saw the shattered remains of the glass.

"It looked like something out of Top Gun," LeClaire said.

The car had been involved in a three-vehicle accident.

LeClaire, the son of an Army drill instructor, said it just "kicked in my head" to stop and try to help if someone was in trouble.

"I'm one of those people who pull over," he said. "I had always been taught to do that. "So many people just stood there and looked." Strands of blond hair hanging out the passenger seat window horrified LeClaire as he approached the car.

"The scariest thing (about the incident) was what I was going to find," he said. "I looked in there and smiled because she was in one piece."

Another person struggled to pry the front door off, but LeClaire lunged for the woman, Julie A. Grabowski.

He said the hair on his arms started to curl as he reached into the furnace-like front seat and pulled Grabowski from the wreck.

Thirty seconds later, "the whole car was engulfed," LeClaire said.

Did LeClaire cross the heroism-stupidity line? He doesn't think so.

A former Scoutmaster in Connecticut, LeClaire said the burning car's gas tank was already ruptured and would not have blown up. He said the bumpers could have been blown off, though.

"There was some risk involved, but I was not afraid," said LeClaire, 46, who lives in Treasure Island. He is a senior network analyst at Bayfront Medical Center.

LeClaire said he went to see Grabowski, who is in her mid-20s, at Bayfront two days after the accident. Grabowski suffered a ruptured spleen, which was not life-threatening. Her hair was slightly singed. She did not recognize LeClaire because she had been unconscious until she entered the emergency room the day of the accident.

A "very modest" LeClaire told Grabowski about the scene of the accident, Grabowski said, and about his role in helping her.

"I was just shocked, stunned (about what he had done)," Grabowski said this week. "I do not know where I'd be if it weren't for him. And it was so nice and caring for him (to come see me)."

"I can't believe she actually survived that crash," LeClaire said. "I've never seen a car so ripped up. It was a miracle."

LeClaire said he's glad he pulled over, though he's not sure what inspired his courage.

"Maybe the grouper made me strong and bold," he laughed as he remembered his lunch that Friday in January, a grouper sandwich from the Crab Shack. It was late morning in September when John Carter pulled 3-year-old Jacob Short from the bottom of the apartment pool he usually cleaned. The boy had no pulse.

A wave of panic swept over Carter.

Trained in CPR, most recently in early 2000, Carter had never used it. It was time.

"I was a nervous wreck," said Carter, 28, who was at the time a maintenance person at the Bel-Air Apartments, 1150 102nd Ave. N. "It seemed like forever (until the paramedics arrived), even though it wasn't that long."

Said Lt. Bengivengo: "He intervened in the four to six minutes it took us to get there. That intervention sets him up as part of the team."

By the time paramedics arrived, Jacob was breathing on his own and talking, said Carter, who said he himself was still a "wreck."

"It's the first time I had to use CPR, and I hope it's the last," he said.

Carter, who has since taken a job at a different housing complex, said it did not take much imagination to see his own 2-year-old or 4-year-old son at the bottom of the pool. He said the incident has made him a more cautious father, and that the child's mother thanked him the next day. He saw Jacob running around the apartment complex less than 24 hours after the incident.

While Jacob looked "like a typical 3-year-old" only a day after nearly drowning, there's still a little nervousness from that day in Carter's quiet voice.

Here are the others who were honored:

St. Petersburg police Officer Chris Schimke pulled a person from a burning building in January.

John Ray and Pat Nuebel helped a man who had had a heart attack and fallen from his boat into Smacks Bayou in December.

Off-duty Dr. Anthony Acosta and nurse Lynn Collins performed CPR on a man who had had a heart attack at Lifestyles Family Fitness Center in February.

Jeremy Dixon loaned a boat to paramedics to help a man whose kayak had overturned on Jan. 13.

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