MANCHESTER, Conn. — A Connecticut middle school teacher’s quick reactions helped save a man from a burning van on Thursday, authorities said.
Heather Sica-Leonard, 38, of Brooklyn, who teaches music at Illing Middle School in Manchester, was at nearby Bennet Academy to speak with sixth-grade students who will be her orchestra students next year, CT Insider reported.
That caused her to take a different route home, and at about 3:15 p.m. EST Sica-Leonard was headed toward Interstate 384 when she saw a burning van, according to the website.
According to a Facebook post by Manchester Fire Rescue EMS, a man identified only as John was driving his van on Main Street when he smelled smoke. John, who uses a wheelchair, moved a cup holder and discovered flames coming from his dashboard. He stopped his van when Sica-Leonard happened to be in the area.
The fuel tank ruptured, which caused the fire to intensify, WTHN-TV reported.
Sica-Leonard, who was driving in the area, saw the flames and pulled John out of his vehicle, Manchester EMS said.
“I don’t know if my mind has really processed yet what could have happened had I not been able to act,” Sica-Leonard told CT Insider in a telephone interview on Friday. “He said, ‘I’m handicapped,’” and needed his wheelchair.”
The van’s electronics had stopped due to the fire and John was unable to swivel in the driver’s seat to reach his wheelchair, which was behind him, Sica-Leonard said.
She was able to open the van’s door, and the air fanned the flames, CT Insider reported.
“He asked, ‘Am I on fire?’ And I checked,” Sica-Leonard said.
He was not. Sica-Leonard grabbed the wheelchair, put it on the ground and held it as John sat down.
“He was pretty capable of getting himself out of the driver’s seat into the wheelchair,” Sica-Leonard told CT Insider.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection responded to the scene to direct the cleanup of the fuel spill, which went down a storm drain, according to WTNH.
“She immediately stopped, approached the burning vehicle and selflessly got John and his wheelchair out of the car and moved him to safety, all at great personal risk to injury,” Manchester Fire Rescue EMS wrote on Facebook. “Her actions averted an almost certain fatal outcome and prevented anyone from being injured.”
Sica-Leonard said she never thought twice about helping, even when the flames expanded.
“I don’t think I had that thought,” she told CT Insider. “My thought was ‘I gotta get him out.’
“I’m just happy that the stars aligned for it to happen the way it was supposed to.”