Survivor reunited with savior

Published 2:01 am Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jesse Vann, with his son, meets Seth Brown for the first time since December 1999 when Brown and others pulled Vann out of burning wreckage.(WDN Photo/Edwin Modlin II)

The smell of burning gasoline and hot metal, and the sound of two people passing by in the middle of the night, is what Jesse Vann awoke to after he was in a car wreck in December 1999.

Vann was catching a ride back home after leaving Chocowinity with two friends, Chris Burbage and Cathy Sinclaire, who did not survive the accident. He was knocked unconscious from the impact of the car hitting a tree.

“I woke up to two guys yelling at me to wake up,” Vann said. “They pulled me from the burning car. Had it not been for them getting there at that moment, there’s no doubt I would’ve died.”

Vann said he remembers hearing the sounds of the tires going over a railroad track with a roar and knew they were airborne.

“I tried to brace myself and I remember the impact and I just went blank,” he said. “I felt like I was dreaming. When people say they see a light, that’s how it was with me. It was like I was in a tunnel and a light at the end. I could hear my buddy telling me to go with him. But then I heard two different voices I’d never heard before. One kept saying, ‘Wake up, wake up.’”

Vann said when he awoke, his leg was burning and the car was on fire.

“I remember a white man and an African-American man asking me if I was OK,” he said. “I was busted up pretty bad. They busted out the back glass (windshield) of the car and put their arms around me and pulled me out.”

Vann was taken to Pitt County Memorial Hospital, where it was discovered he had a lacerated lung.

Vann said he went years without getting in contact with the people who rescued him because the accident was something he relived every day, and he didn’t know how to deal with it.

But then, Vann wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Daily News asking for help to find the men who saved his life 11 years ago.

The Daily News printed his letter and a response came in the form of Seth Brown, the man who helped pull Vann from the burning car that night.

Brown, the principal at Chicod Middle School, is now a married father of two young daughters.

“A friend told me she saw the newspaper in her dentist’s office,” Brown said. “So I contacted the newspaper and was able to get in touch with Jesse.”

Vann met his rescuers for the first time in an emotional reunion at Eastern Pines Fire Department.

“It’s just a great feeling to see them and thank them in person,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”

Mark Windham, a medic and first responder on the scene that night, is now a volunteer firefighter and a full-time employee with Greenville Utilities.

“We’ve been on thousands of calls and we don’t remember all of them,” he said. “But we remember this one. It just stuck with us. Had he been in that car another 35 to 40 seconds, he would’ve died.”

Windham added that he thinks it stayed with him because of how severe the accident was with two others dying, and that he was amazed Vann survived.

“I remember there was a fire on the front passenger side and we really couldn’t move him until he started moving himself,” Brown said. “I just remember yelling at him to get up.”

Jesse Vann enjoys a special reunion with his rescuers, Seth Brown, Leon “Pudden” Boyd, Vann’s wife Crystal, his son Mark Windham and Gary Arnold, at Eastern Pines Fire Department. (WDN Photo/Edwin Modlin II)

Fellow firefighters, Leon “Pudden” Boyd and Gary Arnold, said they were amazed by everything that night and still remember that call to this day.

“When we (Eastern Pines Fire and Rescue) arrived on scene the vehicle was on fire and the other two victims were already deceased,” Boyd said.

According to Brown, the fire started on the front passenger side of the vehicle and went through the whole vehicle pretty quickly. Another man who was there, whom they know as Mr. Gurganus, was a volunteer fireman in Aurora.

It was this man, Mr. Gurganus, a preacher and his wife, who made a wrong turn as they were leaving Greenville. And he was the first one on the scene.

“All I know is that tells me that somebody got him in the right place at the right time,” Boyd said.

Firefighters and rescue personnel are trained to save lives and give life back to the families if they even save one person.

“This is why we do it,” Boyd said. “We don’t do it for the money. It’s all about helping somebody.”

The National Firefighter Association sent Vann papers to fill out for the rescuers. However, he was so devastated by the deaths he couldn’t handle it and didn’t know how to handle it.

“There’s not one single day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” Vann said. “I think God puts people in your path like guardian angels. That’s all it could’ve been. It was just a matter of God’s will.”

“There’s always something good that comes out of something bad,” Boyd said.

The Grimesland Fire Department played a significant role in the rescue that night as well, as their firefighters responded to the call.

Jason Miller was the other teacher from C.M. Eppes Middle School that helped Mr. Gurganus try to get the driver out. However, he was unavailable and currently lives and works in Wilmington as a pharmaceutical representative with Gateway Pharmaceuticals.

Windham invited Vann and Brown to the departments barbecue cookout on May 7 as well.

“All you have to do is show up,” he said. “We’ll even show you how to cook barbecue.”

“And I’ll show you how to eat it,” Vann said.

Vann said he will always be in debt to the rescuers who saved his life that night and will never forget what they do.

“Without them I wouldn’t have my family,” Vann said. “I wouldn’t have my son or my wife. And it’s my belief that the Lord put everybody there for a reason.”