Out of the flames: Bishop residents get one of state's highest awards for valor
The nightmares for John Williamson and Amy Steinwand will probably never really go away.
But the knife-edge of them—the sting of them—is beginning to recede.
Eighteen months after the worst traffic accident in Inyo County’s history claimed the lives of four people and injured more than a dozen more, Bishop residents Williamson and Steinwand were honored last Saturday for their heroic and horrifying work.
“I will never forget that night,” said Williamson.
“Over time, the sounds, the “smell of death–it’s gotten easier, but it will always be there. I’ve changed and I like that. I look at my family, at my daughters. I know how precious life is, how infinitely fragile it is, how it could be gone in an instant.
“And I’m a lot more giving now. If I have something someone needs, be it firewood or a loan, I give it.”
“It’s not something that just goes away,” Steinwand said. “You can’t go through this tragic, dramatic ordeal without it definitely changing you. I appreciate life so much more and wake up everyday with a positive outlook.
If I encounter a grumpy person I smile and hope that tomorrow will be a better day for them.”
One hundred and forty of their friends and neighbors and the city’s mayor and fire chief all gathered at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Bishop as the couple was awarded two California State Firefighter’s Association (CSFA) awards: an Award of Valor for Williamson and an Award of Merit for Steinwand.
The couple had, Riverside Fire Captain Jeff Loveland said as he gave them their awards, gone far above and beyond common courage in saving the lives of two young men.
“They had risked their lives to save lives,” Loveland said. “Two young men who would otherwise have died are alive today because of their actions.
There is no doubt in my mind that both young men would not have survived without John’s actions and without the care and comfort Amy was able to give them.”
Loveland said that while Inyo County Sheriff’s Investigator Shane Scott had received the same Award of Valor that Williamson was getting several months earlier, after an intensive investigation into the accident by the CSFA Valor Committee (Loveland chairs the committee), it was Williamson’s and Steinwand’s turn.
“This particular award is not designed for professionals, it’s for people like Amy and John who find themselves thrust into an unexpected situation and who react with heroism and immense courage without thought of their own safety,” he said. “These are real people and they are true heroes.”
That dreadful day
It was night of celebration, recognition, cake and laughter and hugs, along with cameras and family.
But although time has passed and the nightmares are receding, they will never completely go away.
It was the fireball above the dark highway that first caught Williamson’s eye that hot summer night. A long-time employee of Northern Inyo Hospital and a veteran Bishop Fire Department volunteer, he was off duty, traveling north to Bishop with Steinwand.
He stared in horror at the seething red mass ahead of them on the highway 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.
“I can’t go any further,” she said.
“Go up the middle,” he said.
“Go, go, go.”
They arrived at a scene of chaos; a Ford SUV flaming, smoking, smashed side-on into a white fourteen-passenger van. Both vehicles were stopped on the eastern edge of northbound U.S. 395.
Most of the people stopped closest to the accident were motionless, silent, stunned. Emergency services had not yet arrived.
Williamson and Steinwand pulled in behind the hellish mess and Williamson ran, the flip flops that he had worn for his day off slapping against the pavement.
Silhouetted against the flames, he saw the outline of a man, obviously a law enforcement officer, with a holster belt and gun. The man was pulling someone out of the flaming SUV. He recognized Inyo County Sheriff’s Investigator 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. Scott had already pulled someone out of the vehicle, a young man, blacked and burned. Williamson helped grab the man and carry him away from the flames, even as the man cried out in pain. He took the man to the side of the road where Steinwand was.
“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.”
They saw another man slumped up against the SUV, which by now was totally engulfed. Small explosions came from the vehicle, cracking the air around them. Williamson grabbed the second young man and carried him to the side of the road, too.
Steinwand was talking quietly to the first man Scott had rescued. She turned her attention to the second man and Scott and Williamson turned back to the fire.
Another victim from the SUV was on the ground, dead.
They knew at least one more person was still trapped in the SUV but the heat was too intense now, too hot to get close. There was nothing they could do to help.
The sounds of screaming from the SUV stopped.
Sirens wailed, lights flashed, emergency workers arrived in fits and waves, headed toward the fire. The fire hissed and scattered, smoke pouring into the sky as the water hit it.
Ten minutes had passed since Williamson and Steinwand first saw the fireball.
By the time that terrible night was over, Wendy Rice, the driver of the Cal Baptist van that was carrying more than a dozen long-distance high school runners north to Mammoth, was dead.
An SUV passenger, running coach John Nathan Adams, formerly of Mammoth Lakes, died several months later. The driver of the southbound SUV, Natalie Nield, died too. She was 17 years old. Another passenger in the SUV, Amanda Post, also died. She was 18.
But the two other passengers that Scott and Williamson pulled out of the SUV, Drew Delis and Derek Thomas, are alive today—Delis missing a foot; Thomas with severe burns over more than 85 percent of his body that will require years of surgery and healing.
But they are alive.
Investigator Scott agreed that Williamson and Steinwand deserved recognition.
“When I was pulling Drew out of the vehicle, John came up behind me and went over to the vehicle, which was fully engulfed by flames, and saw that Derek was leaning against the vehicle, slumped over,” Scott said Wednesday. “He pulled Derek away from it and took him to safety to the side of the road. When Jeff (Loveland) and I talked about the accident as I was getting my Award of Valor from the CSFA, I told him that John deserved recognition, too.”
Steinwand and Williamson have continued to stay in touch with both of “their boys,” as they call them. They just recently visited Thomas in Southern California. In fact, Thomas was expected to be in Bishop last Saturday, until a high fever that day kept him at home.
But Derek’s father, Randy Thomas, sent Steinwand this text message: “I am so happy you are both receiving recognition … both of you will always be my heroes. I am blessed to have Derek in my life today and everyday. I start everyday with a smile thanks to you. Love to you both.”
For their part, Williamson and Steinwand said things are settling back down.
Steinwand, in a seemingly brutal fluke of nature, lost her Big Pine home to the wildfire that raced through the town last March, destroying 14 homes.
She has since moved to Bishop and is now living there with Williamson.
Their relationship, relatively new when the accident occurred, has not only survived, it has thrived.
But it would be a lie to say they will ever be the same.