Joe Erwin, left, and Brian Woliver were leaving a gas station on Fort Henry Drive when they saw flames coming from the vehicles involved in Saturday’s crash, top.Photo by Ned Jilton II
KINGSPORT — On Saturday night, an Acura barrelled down Fort Henry Drive heading north at 104 mph.
A blue Ford Expedition carrying the Bellamy family — Tony, Angela and Colton — was traveling south on Fort Henry Drive at 35 mph.
Across the street, R.L. Williams was coming out of the Walmart parking lot. The Acura crossed the center line and collided head-on with the Expedition while Williams watched.
“It sounded like an explosion,” he said. “That’s what it looked like. There was a big burst and all kinds of stuff went in the air.”
Shortly after the collision, both cars burst into flames. Williams made his way toward the wreck.
Chris Faber and his girlfriend had been heading to a restaurant on Saturday night. A car pulled out in front of Faber, and he witnessed the Acura narrowly miss one vehicle and then watched as the Acura hit the Expedition head-on. He too started to make his way toward the flaming wreckage.
Brian Woliver and Joe Erwin were at a gas station down from Walmart. They had watched the University of Tennessee football game earlier that day and had headed out to get Erwin’s fiance some pumpkin bread. Woliver’s wife and 2-year-old son had ridden along. As they were pulling out, Erwin noticed the burning vehicles. He told Woliver to take a left and go check it out.
As they got closer, they noticed there were no police officers or fire trucks around. Erwin told Woliver he thought people were still inside the car. The two took off toward the wreck.
Flames were shooting in the air and pieces of both cars were spread across the dark pavement. Night had fallen and the only light was coming from the flames.
A trail of gasoline ran under the Expedition and shot flames out of the back of the car.
Erwin and Woliver split up when they got closer. Erwin ran to the Acura to try and free the driver. When he got to the car, it was too late.
“I couldn’t get her out,” he said. “Her car was basically engulfed in flames by this point.”
Woliver and another man got to the passenger’s side of the Expedition at about the same time. Colton was sitting in the back of the Expedition, almost out of the burning wreckage. The duo pulled Colton out of the car and dragged him to safety over the hill, in case there was an explosion.
When they got Colton to safety, Woliver ran back to the wreck.
Erwin, Williams and Faber were at the Expedition, struggling to get the passenger’s side door open. Erwin had taken his shirt off to try and get the door open, but it wouldn’t budge and eventually the flames forced him back.
Someone said they needed to break the windows, and Woliver tried kicking the window out. It wouldn’t budge. Then they searched around for something to use to break it out. But everything they picked up was plastic and wouldn’t break the window.
It was then that Faber remembered he had a tool for breaking car windows in his car. He took off toward his car to get it. Woliver could see through to the other side and saw the driver’s side window was already broken out.
Woliver moved to the driver’s side where Tony was. Flames were moving up the hood, getting closer to the windshield. Woliver reached in and put his hand on the steering wheel because it looked like Tony was trapped beneath it.
“I was creating space so I could get him to move a little bit,” Woliver said. “The flames were overwhelming and close, but it was one of those mind-sets: ‘If it goes, we’re all going to go’ type of deals.”
As this was happening, Faber returned and with one swing broke out the passenger’s side window. Once the window was out of the way, the group, which also included Justin Addington, reached in and pulled Angela out of the SUV.
On the other side, Tony was asking about his wife and son. He asked if they were safe.
Tony’s legs looked bad, and the flames were getting closer. Erwin got the car window tool from Faber and made his way to the other side, not realizing the driver’s side window was already out.
While Woliver was pushing on the dash to get the steering wheel off Tony, a small explosion occurred right in Woliver’s face — but he was focused on getting Tony out. He saw hands reaching through from the passenger’s side, and the group grabbed Tony.
Woliver ran to the other side and helped to pull him out. Once Tony was out, the group got him away from the wreck as quickly as possible.
Many people made several attempts to get back to the Acura, but the flames were too much.
Woliver and Erwin both served in the military — Woliver in the Marines and Erwin in the Air Force — so they began going through progressions with the Bellamy family to check for responsiveness.
From the time of the wreck until first responders got to the scene, 10 minutes had passed.
Williams said he doesn’t consider himself a hero, and neither does Woliver, Erwin or Faber. Each said they were just helping someone out and if they or their family were ever trapped, they hope someone else would do the same.
The group of strangers pulled together to save three people they didn’t know.
Woliver said he doesn’t think that was good enough. He said three for four was good in basketball, but not in saving lives.
The driver of the Acura died at the scene. Tony died three days later. Colton and Angela were still listed in critical condition on Tu e s d a y.
The men who responded to the crash scene said they wish they could have saved everybody and regret that they didn’t.
“We offer our prayers and condolences to both families,” Woliver said.
The Johnson City Press contributed to this report.