Aaron Totten, 16, had almost made it home from Central High School in Rapid City, South Dakota, when he realized he was missing something crucial: his daily bag of Cheetos. The high school junior made a U-turn in his Ford Expedition and beelined to a store for his favorite junk food fix.
As Aaron drove north in the left lane of Elk Vale Road, a Kia Rio abruptly swerved into him, sideswiping him on the right. Instantly, Aaron lost control and barreled across the median into oncoming traffic, hitting another SUV head-on at about 55 miles per hour. The crash flipped the Expedition end over end down an embankment, where it finally skidded to a stop on the driver’s side.
Horrified motorists watched as flames leaped from the car’s exposed undercarriage and a column of acrid black smoke bloomed upward.
Jim Goodrich, 58, a retired Air Force mechanic, witnessed the accident on his way to a birthday party in nearby Custer. He pulled his car to the side of the road and dashed down the hill, where a few men had gathered to help.
Toby Vigil, 62, a truck driver for Walmart, and Phillip Huebner, 55, a program director with the South Dakota Board of Regents, were already aiming small fire extinguishers at the wreckage when Jim got there. He rushed toward the mangled car to find the driver, but he couldn’t see him. “I could hear moaning,” he says.
Aaron was still strapped into his seat, but the force of the crash had jammed it backward. When the men located Aaron, one of them reached into the car to slice off his seat belt, and Jim tried to calm him. “Is anyone else in the car with you? What’s your name?” Aaron was able to answer, but Jim could tell the teenager’s injuries were serious. It looked like the car would be engulfed in flames at any minute, so Jim and another man began to maneuver Aaron out a window. Each time Aaron was moved, he screamed in pain.
On the other side of the SUV, the fire burned. All the extinguishers lay empty on the ground, and the flames began to crawl into the cab. Phillip didn’t see any sign of rescue vehicles. “We need to get him out,” he yelled.
Jim quickly suggested they tilt the vehicle. While Toby grabbed Aaron around the waist, Jim tugged on the boy’s arms. As the men slowly rocked the car forward, it gave just enough that they could inch Aaron through the window, but partway out, he got stuck.
“This is going to hurt like hell,” Jim warned Aaron. With a final push on the car and a monumental tug on the teenager, the men pulled Aaron free.
They picked him up and ran away from the car. Seconds later, flames engulfed the cab, and with a whoosh, the entire vehicle went up. “It was like a movie,” Jim recalls.
Months later, Aaron has no memory of the accident or the ambulance ride. He spent five weeks in the hospital with a crushed pelvis, compound fractures, internal bleeding, and bruised lungs. He knows that he owes his life to a handful of drivers who cared enough to stop. “They put themselves in danger to save me,” he says. “I don’t know how to thank them.”