An International Falls man is being hailed a hero this week after pulling a woman from a burning vehicle and saving her life.
Ryan Horne was traveling east on Highway 11 Tuesday afternoon when he and Joe Donnell, the passenger in his pickup truck, spotted smoke in the ditch about four miles west of Birchdale.
“When I first saw the smoke, I figured someone threw a cigarette out in the ditch,” Horne said. “It was just a wisp of smoke.”
Not thinking much of it, the men planned to stop and stomp out the fire when Horne's eye caught a reflection of a mirror or windshield deeper in the woods.
“That’s when I saw the tire tracks going into the ditch,” he said. “At that point, I got worried. The first thing running through my head was why weren’t the people out of the vehicle... I started thinking the worst.”
Donnell contacted dispatch as Horne ran toward the woods to see a fire developing in the front tire compartment of an SUV.
“It was spreading toward the engine compartment and it was getting fairly large really quickly,” Horne said. “Then, the brush caught fire around it. It went from a little bit of smoke to a raging fire in just a few minutes.”
The impact of the crash caused a tree to fall over the driver’s side of the vehicle, restricting access on the entire left panel. Luckily, Horne was able to open the hatchback, and saw a woman, who was identified by the Minnesota State Patrol as Janet Mart, 74, of Baudette, sitting in the passenger seat.
As soon as Horne allowed oxygen into the vehicle, flames spread to the interior and thick smoke intensified the situation.
“I asked her if anyone else was in the car,” he said. “I was expecting a driver, but she had crawled over to the passenger side and was trying to get out... She kept saying her dog was in the car.”
Once Horne determined Mart was the only occupant of the SUV, he advanced toward her through the back of the vehicle requesting she give him her hand.
“As soon as she got her hand to the center console, I knew I could pull her out away from the flames,” Horne said, adding as he did, Mart reached down and grabbed the collar of the dog. “I got the dog out of the back of the car... By that time, it was almost fully engulfed.”
Grabbing Mart around the torso, Horne pulled her out just as the front of the vehicle exploded. Only minutes had passed since the event started.
“I just picked her up and we ran through the woods,” Horne said. “Once we got a safe distance from the car, I sat her down to make sure she was all right, then I got her and the dog inside my truck and waited for help.”
Meanwhile, Brady Hasbargen was seeding soybeans in a nearby field just south of the crash site.
“I saw some smoke and was worried my neighbor’s house or something on their property was on fire,” he said. “But I also knew it could be nothing more than a burning brush pile.”
However, Hasbargen saw the neighbor running across the field toward the smoke and knew something was wrong. As a volunteer firefighter on the Birchdale Fire Department, Hasbargen said he also made his way toward the scene.
“I drove my tractor right to the fire,” he said.
When Hasbargen arrived and realized a vehicle was involved, but knew everyone had escaped safely, he focused on extinguishing the flames.
“I waited for a (fire) truck to arrive,” he said.
Kit Hasbargen, another neighbor in the area, has a skidder equipped with a water tank used to douse wildfires.
“We got the skidder down there and started putting water on the fire,” Kit Hasbargen said. “It was pretty impressive all the people who were there... That woman was very lucky. Thank God for Horne, he saved her life.”
Brady Hasbargen agreed.
“Everyone worked together to put the fire out and keep it from spreading,” he said. “I’m very glad of the outcome. That could have been extremely tragic... (Horne) is a hero for sure.”
It is unclear what caused the SUV to leave the road, but Kim Driskell, office manager with the Minnesota State Patrol, said Mart reported while she was traveling westbound on Highway 11, the vehicle jerked.
“It sounds like there was a mechanical issue and the vehicle entered the ditch,” Driskell said. “The driver was belted and she had no injuries, and no citations were issued.”
Mart did not return a message left by The Journal in time for this story.
Horne was humble about the situation Thursday when recalling the event, and said he did what anyone would do.
“Anybody can do that, you just have to be in the right mindset,” he said. “I’m glad I could be there for her and that she is OK.”