Deputy Stephen Romanik was on regular patrol in a rural Chautauqua County area early Sunday morning when he got the call – of a vehicle in a ditch, with a person trapped inside.
Fifteen to 20 seconds later, the emergency became more dire, when Romanik learned that the vehicle was on fire.
He raced to the scene, and along with an off-duty EMT returning home from work, managed to smash two windows to gain entry to the vehicle, recline the female victim’s seat and then pull the woman out the driver’s side rear door.
A couple minutes later, her vehicle was fully engulfed in flames.
Valerie A. Roach, 28, whose most recent address is in Silver Creek, was listed in good condition in Erie County Medical Center on Tuesday. Authorities said she suffered a broken ankle and some burns in the incident.
Romanik marveled at the coincidence of his being only about a mile and a half away, after the EMT, Raymond Austin, happened to pass by the accident so quickly and report it.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I happened to be so close,” Romanik said Tuesday. “If he [Austin] hadn’t been there, she would have died, and he said the same thing to me.
“I’m glad that she’s alive.”
Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace was grateful for the two men’s actions.
“I’m extremely proud of these two gentlemen,” Gerace said. “They both are true public servants. This is an example of how they put someone else’s health and well-being in front of their own personal safety.”
The incident for the two rescuers began at about 5:20 a.m. Sunday, while Romanik was on patrol in the Town of Villenova and fielded the two police calls alerting him to the situation on Route 83.
“Upon my arrival, the engine compartment was on fire,” he said. “I grabbed my fire extinguisher, attempted to put the fire out, but the fire extinguisher ran out.”
The rescuers heard the woman in the vehicle screaming, as she remained pinned between the steering wheel and the gas pedal. Romanik and Austin, an EMT with Alstar EMS, tried to open the doors, but they were locked.
“I took the extinguisher, screamed at her to cover her eyes and smashed the front driver’s window and the rear window,” Romanik said.
The two men still couldn’t get the front door open, but they managed to open the rear one and climbed inside. Romanik then reached forward, grabbed the seat-reclining lever and brought the woman’s seat back as far as possible.
Then, from the back seat, they grabbed her from under her arms and pulled her out through the rear door, to about 15 to 20 feet from the vehicle.
Meanwhile, the fire was spreading.
“Probably within 30 to 45 seconds after we got her out of the car, the driver’s compartment was engulfed,” Romanik said. “Within two minutes of us getting her out, the entire car was engulfed.”
Romanik insisted he was just doing his job. The real hero, to him, was Austin, who was off-duty and could have left the scene or decided not to enter a burning car.
The 42-year-old Romanik, who served 19 years on the Silver Creek police force before joining the Sheriff’s Office in January, said he’s never before had to rescue a person in such a situation.
“It’s the first time,” he added. “Hopefully, it will be the last.”