Life out of chaos: A story of bravery in face of disaster
It was the fireball above the dark highway that first caught John Williamson’s eye that hot summer night of Aug. 9. A veteran Bishop Fire Department volunteer, he was off duty, headed from his girlfriend Amy Steinwand’s home in Big Pine to his home in Bishop.
He stared in horror at the seething red mass and turned to Steinwand, who was driving. “Go,” he said. “Go, go, go.”
They shot up the highway, flying past cars and trucks, headed toward the inferno.
Cars began to back up, blocking both lanes, stopped from somewhere up ahead where the fire spun into the night.
They arrived at chaos: a Ford SUV flaming like a torch, smashed side-on into a white 14-passenger van that had been headed north, both vehicles at a dead stop on the eastern edge of north-bound U. S. 395.
The people stopped closest to the accident were motionless, stunned. Emergency services had not yet arrived.
They stopped behind the hellish mess and Williamson, 46, ran, the flip flops that he had worn for his day off slapping against the pavement.
Against the flames, he saw the outline of a man, obviously law enforcement, with a holster belt and gear. The man had pulled someone out of the flaming SUV. He recognized Inyo County Sheriff’s Deputy Shane Scott.
”We gotta get down,” Scott said when he saw Williamson. “It’s gonna go again.”
When it didn’t, Williamson headed toward the SUV. They got another man, blackened and burned, farther away from the flames. Williamson carried him up to where Steinwand, 40, was waiting in front of the SUV by the other man Scott had rescued.
“He was telling me to stop, it hurt, and I told him, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t right now,” Williamson said. “I’m so sorry.”
He and Scott then pulled the other man to Steinwand. Another person from the SUV was on the ground, no longer alive.
Still another was trapped inside the SUV. The heat from the SUV was intense now, too hot to get close. There was nothing they could do to rescue anyone still in the SUV.
The sounds from the SUV stopped. Sirens wailed, lights flashed, emergency workers arriving in fits and waves headed toward the fire. The fire hissed and spattered, smoke pouring into the sky as water hit it.
Ten minutes had passed since they first saw the fireball.
Sirens flashed, wailed. Help arrived to douse the SUV. Williamson turned his attention to the white van.
He climbed inside the back end of the crumpled vehicle. It was completely silent inside, bodies slumped over seats.
“I could see four girls in front of me, but they were unconscious or quiet. No one was saying anything at all,” he said.
He was worried that the fire from the SUV, crashed against the front of the van, would get inside, so he took pillows and whatever he could find and stuffed them into the windows of the van. More emergency personnel arrived and got some of the girls out. Still silent. Inside, he found himself looking hard into the Jaws of Life. Behind the tool, he saw Warren Bowen, someone he knew from previous rescues. He gestured to Bowen where the girls were lying, helping guide the jaws so they didn’t harm anyone.
“No you can’t cut there,” he said when he discovered one young woman nearly invisible under a seat. More sirens wailed, more lights flashed, more help arrived to get the girls out. He headed back to the side of the road to look for Steinwand.
Twenty minutes had passed since he first saw the fireball.
“So polite, so calm”
Steinwand was on the east side of the highway shoulder along with another woman who had a nursing background, working with the few bystanders not too shocked to act. From behind her people were bringing towels and water out of an RV, trying to douse the two burn victims with whatever water they could find.
The bulk of the rescuers’ attention was still on the burning SUV and the victims in both cars.
Two young men, boys really, Steinwand would say, were stretched out on the roadside.
“I was talking to them both and they kept telling me they were on fire,” she said. “
I said, ‘No, honey, no, you’re not, it just feels like it,’” she said. “They were so polite, so calm. They answered me, down to every name, every age, who they were, what they were doing in that car. Someone brought me pen and paper and I wrote it down.” “Then one of them asked me to get his wallet from his pants and told me to hold onto it, and to call his dad. “I did and got voice mail and hung up but he said, “No, you need to leave a message.’” She called the other boy’s father as well, and left another message.
Someone showed up with a neck brace and a backboard and told her to put the boys on it. She’d never done anything like it in her life, but she and some of the bystanders, with the help of Shane Scott, figured it out. Ambulances rolled up and loaded the boys. The boys’ parents had still not called back.
A half hour had passed since they first saw the fire.
Steinwand headed back to her Mercury to wait for Williamson, hoping to follow the ambulances carrying the two boys, with whom she had spent the last 30 minutes, to the hospital. On the way she saw a young woman crying in the middle of the road, apparently unhurt.
The woman turned out to be Tanager (police reports gave Tanager no last name). She had been driving her Subaru near the Baptist Church minivan when the SUV crashed into it. Although news stories originally said Tanager was homeless, she was a student and lived in Oregon. She was headed back there when the accident occurred.
On closer examination, Steinwand realized Tanager was burned across her shoulder where the flash of the fire had reached through her open window. With all the chaos of the rescue still directed toward the other two vehicles, Tanager’s injuries had not yet been attended to.
Williamson appeared and they got ready to follow “their boys” to the hospital. They gathered Tanager up and headed north via the detour set up on Collins Road. Behind them the smoke from the SUV still trailed into the night sky.
Steinwand’s phone rang on the drive to the hospital. It was Randy Thomas, father of one of the boys, Derek Thomas.
“He was asking questions. I told him that the car had exploded, that Derek was alive, but that he had been burned pretty bad,” she said. Doctors would later say Thomas had third degree burns over 85 percent of his body. “I couldn’t lose it then, but I wanted to,” Steinwand said.
Five minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Dean Delis, the father of the other boy, Drew Delis. She told him Drew was burned mostly on his feet. Doctors reported that Drew Delis had serious burns over 35 percent of his body. In the chaos, neither parent knew where their son was being transported. Steinwand said she would stay in touch. “We got to Northern Inyo Hospital in time to see them wheel Drew and Derek out to be flown out,” she said. At the hospital, she realized the piece of paper with all the names on it had been lost in the chaos, after she handed it to an ambulance worker. Somehow, she remembered them all, and told CHP officer Laura Roberts the names. They were questioned as witnesses, gave their statements numerous times, and waited.
Eventually, Tanager was released from the hospital at 4 a.m. They took her to Williamson’s home in Bishop that night and made a bed up for her. Then they went to bed. It was 5:30 a.m., Aug.10.
“Nothing prepared me for this”
“I tossed and turned,” she said. “I couldn’t get the sounds out of my mind,” Williamson said. “I’ve been on a lot of calls but nothing prepared me for this.”
They stayed up talking, trying to make sense of what they had seen, what they had done and not done. The next day they took Tanager to American Red Cross where they helped her purchase a plane ticket home to Oregon.
Later that week, they got a text message from Drew’s father, Dean. “Drew is still critical, but stable ... if we can get through the next 24, we’re golden. Thank you again for saving our Drew’s life. ...”
A few days later, she got a similar text from Derek’s father, Randy. The texts and the phone calls continued throughout the next several weeks. They continue today, though mostly with Dean Delis, an Encinitas neuropsychologist.
On Sept. 24, Steinwand and Williamson drove to San Diego at the request of Drew Delis’ parents to meet Drew and his family for the first time.
“It was amazing to see him,” Williamson said. “He looked like us, he looked fine. Last time I saw him, he was black from the fire. It was amazing.” “We couldn’t hug him, but we wanted to,” he said. Drew’s parents took them to dinner and asked them questions. “They wanted to know everything,” Seinwand said. So they told them.
Williamson is a big, quiet man, not prone to small talk. A Bishop native, he’s been on the Bishop Fire Department as a volunteer for 25 years and has worked at Northern Inyo Hospital in maintenance for 30 years. He has two daughters, both adults now.
Steinwand, also a Bishop native, is slight, dark-haired, pretty. She freely admits it doesn’t take much to make her cry. She started dating Williamson a year ago. She has two children, one grown daughter and the youngest a freshman at Bishop High School.
“When I saw that explosion, when I saw Shane’s silhouette, I thought, “Wow, he’s gonna need my help,” Williamson said. “All I knew when I got there was to start pulling people away from that fire. “I’ve done a lot of rescues, but nothing could ever prepare me for someone alive being on fire.”
“I’m pretty resilient, but this has taken its toll on me. But I am glad I could help.”
Former Bishop Fire Department battalion chief Dick Weller isn’t surprised that Williamson risked his life for someone he didn’t know. A 40-year veteran of the department, he’s known Williamson since he was a young man, when Williamson joined the volunteer fire department.
“John’s just a real caring person,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
“I trained him, I was always really impressed at how he worked his way up the ranks, how he learned to operate every piece of equipment.
“You don’t give what you have for nothing, and join a volunteer fire department if you aren’t already a caring person,” he said. “He had to do what he could. He wouldn’t want to see anyone hurt, if he could help it.”
“She’s always been like that”
Steinwand was born in Bishop, grew up on a cattle ranch, and worked at a hospital for several years in Ridgecrest, but she has absolutely no nursing or medical background. She’s now the office manager for Inyo Crude.
“It was mostly instinct,” she said. “It was like being a mom, talking to them, trying to make them feel safe. Drew kept asking me to hold his hand, and I had to tell him, ‘Honey, I’m sorry, I can’t, you’ve been burned.’ “I held it together, until I talked to his dad later.”
“She’s the sweetest person you’ve ever met, but when something like this happens, she doesn’t hesitate to take action,” said longtime friend Tracy Windsor.
“The ability to be calm, to act during a crisis, she’s always been like that. She’s like a survivor person, one of those people that can survive anything. And she’s one of the best moms there is.”
Drew Delis, 22, suffered serious burns over 35 percent of his body, mostly on his feet. Eventually, his left foot was amputated. He is in a rehabilitation hospital in his home of San Diego, learning to walk.
When Williamson and Steinwand visited him in September, he had just learned about the deaths of the other three passengers, they said. He had also just seen one of his father’s friends, who had lost his leg in a accident. The friend is an avid surfer, like Drew, and was showing Drew photos of himself surfing a big California wave wearing the new prosthesis he was inventing. He is a senior at the University of San Diego and plans to go on to law school.
Drew’s family is sending Williamson and Steinwand to Hawaii for a week in March to thank them for all they did for Drew.
“I believe that Shane and John really did save my son’s life. They gave me the ultimate gift, they risked their life for my son,” Dean Delis told the Mammoth Times late in September.
“And Amy was incredible. She comforted my son, she called us and stayed in touch with us through this all. “I will always be incredibly indebted to them. “When they come here to visit us, I hope that they will see that he was worth it.”
Derek Thomas, 19, is alive and recovering, but he has been in a drug-induced coma since August. He has been badly burned and was going through his 23rd surgery in late November. He still does not know that his girlfriend, Amanda Post, 18, died in the accident that night, He is a graduate of Catholic Cathedral High School out of Carmel Valley.
“Words cannot express what John and Amy did for my son,” Randy Thomas said in late September. “Words cannot express it.”
The other three people in the SUV that night, Natalie Nield, 17, Amanda Post, 18, and Nathan John Adams, 39, did not survive the crash. The driver of the van, Wendy Rice, 39, a cheerleading coach from Cal Baptist University, also died in the accident. The final report on the accident, now under investigation by a Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, was expected to be out months ago, but is still pending. Both vehicles involved in the accident were full of cross-country runners. The Ford SUV was leaving Mammoth and headed south, back to San Diego following a high altitude cross-country training camp when the accident occurred. The Cal Baptist van was headed north to Mammoth for the same camp. The MT contacted Shane Scott, but he did not return phone calls.