Mike McGregor for Reader's Digest
On Thanksgiving weekend, the Heffelmire family gathered for a meal at their expansive three-story home in Vienna, Virginia. After dinner, Charlotte, 19; her mother, Darmie, 54; her three-month-old niece, Mirae; and two family friends went down to the finished basement to relax. Charlotte’s father, Eric, 55, holed up in the garage to tinker with his truck, a silver GNC Sierra.
Around 8 p.m., Charlotte decided to check on her dad. She went upstairs and walked through the kitchen, the aroma of turkey and dressing still in the air. When she opened the side door to the garage, black smoke billowed into the kitchen. She could barely make out her father lying on his back, trapped under the truck. He’d removed the front passenger-side tire and raised the truck on a jack to reach the front brakes. The truck had slipped off the jack, and now the wheel hub was crushing his chest and shoulders.
In bare feet, Charlotte ran to the front of the truck and struggled to lift it. Eric was still conscious, and he yelled, “You got it! One more try!” She tried again and was able to tip the truck backward just enough for her to prop it up with her right hip. She grabbed her dad by the shirt with both hands and yanked his six-foot-three, 280-pound frame from under the truck.
She hooked her hands under his armpits and dragged him across the garage and 20 feet down the driveway, where she propped him up against another family car. Then she ran back to the garage, which had burst into flames. “I was afraid the car was going to explode,” says Charlotte, so she climbed into the truck, which faced forward, turned the key, and pressed the gas pedal. The car slowly rolled out, the metal wheel scraping loudly against the concrete.
Safely on the driveway, Charlotte stopped the truck, ran back through the garage, and sprinted down the steps to the basement. “There’s a fire! Everybody get out!” she yelled to her family members. They followed her as she scooped up her niece and ran out the back basement door.
Outside, she handed the baby to her mom, then ran around to the burning garage. Eric was on his feet. He was dazed but appeared uninjured, so Charlotte grabbed a garden hose and sprayed the fire with one hand while she called 911 on her cell phone with the other.
A few minutes later, fire trucks arrived, and firefighters ushered Charlotte to an ambulance. She was treated for second-degree burns on the bottoms of both feet. The fire had singed her hair, and she had flash burns on her face. Her dad had contusions on his chest and shoulders, as well as minor burns on his face. Later that night at a hotel, the extent of her actions—and her injuries—sank in. “I was so sore,” says Charlotte, who is a slim five foot six. “But in the moment, adrenaline took over.”
The fire department determined that when the truck slipped off the jack, small sparks flew and most likely ignited gas leaking from an old freezer in the garage. Paint and gas cans and propane tanks further fed the fire. The garage’s interior was destroyed, the basement flooded from burst pipes, and the rest of the house was damaged by smoke and water. But the family survived.
The Heffelmires are staying in an apartment while their house is renovated. “Charlotte is a remarkable kid,” says her dad. Charlotte, however, credits her instinct. “I was saving my family and my house,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let my dad die.”