Oct. 16—WATERTOWN — A dinner off post at Applebee's for five Fort Drum soldiers turned into a moment of quick thinking and immediate action, credited for saving three people in a violent, fiery crash in front of the Price Chopper plaza on Thursday night.
Working together, three soldiers pulled two injured people from a pickup truck that burst into flames, while two others ran over to the nearby Applebee's restaurant for a fire extinguisher to put out a fire underneath the vehicle, they said.
Sgt. Major Jake Smith was just pulling into the plaza to go to Applebee's when he saw a Dodge Ram pickup speeding down Arsenal Street right before it smashed into a Dodge Durango leaving the Speedway convenience store shortly before 10 p.m., he said.
The other four soldiers had just finished dinner and were about to pull out of the plaza when they saw and heard the crash. All five soldiers rushed over to the crash scene to see what they could do to help.
"It was a big explosion and the next thing we knew, the whole block, the lights went out for about 30 seconds," Spc. Shane Cockerham said.
Sgt. Major Smith, a veteran combat soldier with 15 deployments under his belt, first ran to his vehicle to pull out a trauma bag that he carries around with him, just in case.
Unbeknownst to them, one victim was still trapped in the driver's side of the pickup.
"The car was quickly becoming engulfed in flames," Sgt. Major Smith said. "We tried to kick the door in multiple times. We tried to break the seat. I got my knife out and I popped the airbags."
One of the soldiers crawled under the truck as the flames spread.
"He was literally under the vehicle, literally under the vehicle trying to put it out," Sgt. Major Smith said of the other soldier. "He absolutely risked his life to buy us time to try to get the individual out of the vehicle. It's not what a lot of people would do."
When firefighters arrived, they were able to use Jaws of Life to get the third victim out of the pickup. Several bystanders helped with the injured before first responders got to the scene, police said. The soldiers downplayed their actions, saying that they don't think of themselves as heroes, that they only did what they have been trained to do.
Lt. Col. Josh Jacques, the 10th Mountain Division public information officer, said the four young soldiers have already been nominated for Soldier Medals for what they did.
"If it weren't for these young soldiers and their quick action and fierce reaction to get the victims out, I believe the three would have died," Sgt. Maj Smith said.
The pickup, occupied by a 20-year-old driver and two 18-year-old male passengers, was traveling west on Arsenal Street when it collided with the Durango, driven by a 44-year-old man, police said.
The driver of the pickup was taken to Carthage Area Hospital where he was treated and released, police said. One of the passengers of the pickup was transported to Samaritan Medical Center where he was treated and released. The other passenger was transported to Samaritan Medical Center before being transferred to Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital in Syracuse, where he is listed as stable, police said.
The driver and passenger in the Durango were taken to Samaritan Medical Center where they were treated and later released.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. Anyone with information is asked to call 315-782-2233.
The Watertown Police Department was assisted by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, New York State Police, Watertown City Fire Department, Town of Watertown Fire Department, Town of Watertown Ambulance Service, Guilfoyle Emergency Medical Service and Evans Mills Ambulance Service.