Charles Salameh, a senior IT executive from Ancaster, Ont., was driving back from a weekend in Toronto with his wife when, around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, the car in front of him began to slow, swerving on the roadway.
It drove “erratically” in front of him westbound on the QEW until it suddenly sped up, ploughing through a series of construction signs, Salameh said.
Eventually, the car came to a stop on the median and smoke began to drift from the vehicle. “We saw the car in a final position, completely mangled and I was right behind him,” Salameh told Global News.
His wife called 911 and Salameh went to see what had happened to the car, and its driver. As he walked to the car, Salameh said a passing driver rolled down his window and shouted “fire!”
Emergency services were not immediately able to get to the scene — around QEW and Cawthra Road — as the fire began to spread. Mississauga Fire Captain Chris Ogg told Global News the area is particularly hard to access.
When firefighters eventually arrived, driving the wrong way down the highway’s on-ramp, Salameh and three other passing civilians had rescued the driver almost unscathed from his burned-out car.
“I was shocked. The car was utterly destroyed; there was nothing left of it,” Ogg said, adding that in his 28-year career he had “never seen anything like it.”
Mississauga Fire said the driver had a seizure. Ontario Provincial Police said were “looking into whether the driver was experiencing a medical episode.”
Salameh and two other men — Fabricio and Tyler, according to Mississauga Fire — attempted to force open the door of the car to free its driver as the flames began to creep up, before emergency services arrived.
A fourth rescuer, Ben Sykes, who works as a commercial real estate broker, identified himself to Global News on Monday evening.
One person drove past and offered a hammer from his pickup truck to help break the glass, Salameh said.
One of the men working with Salameh to complete the rescue ran to the passenger side of the car, trying to rescue the driver who was still restrained by his seatbelt as the flames entered the inside of the vehicle.
“(He) ran around to the other side of the car — now the car is, I would say, 50 per cent in flames,” Salameh said. (He) got the passenger door open, got into the car … as he went into the car, the flames went inside the car.”
The driver’s seatbelt was released and they were able to drag him from the car, Salameh said — with seconds to spare.
“Flames were rising, rising, rising. We managed to get him out, he was completely dead weight, dragged him out of the car and put him into my truck. And I’d say 10 seconds later, the car was fully engulfed. He was 10 seconds away from literally being burned alive.”
The driver escaped with first degree burns to his face and arms, according to Mississauga fire.
Ogg estimated the flames from the car could have reached 1,000 Celsius, with further dangers posed by exploding tires and the car’s leaking fuel tank.
“The heat produced and the toxic fumes produced during a car fire — to go in there with no gear on (is incredible),” he said, pointing to the extensive protective equipment worn by firefighters.
Salameh said the biggest hero was Sykes, the man who released the driver’s seatbelt through the passenger door.
“The fellow that went into the car on the passenger side — wearing a black shirt, bald fellow — as soon as we were done, he just kind of said, ‘Great job guys, got to go.’ He was like this angel, just showed up and jumped into a burning car.”
All four have now been nominated for the Fire Chief Commendation Award, a nomination Mississauga Fire Chief Deryn Rizzi said she supports.
“They saved a life today,” Ogg said.