Choosing courage

It’s a life or death decision. You are faced with a burning pick-up. The gas tank could explode at any second. Your instinct tells you to run. Then you see two people inside the truck.
If you are Chris Roberts and Don Crites, your instinct leads you into the fire ...
Thursday, July 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:18 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Columbia man and four of his friends rescued two teenagers from a burning pickup truck Tuesday, picking their way over scattered shotgun shells and flowing gasoline to get to the accident victims.

The teens were on their way to work at a gun range off St. Charles Road northeast of Columbia when the driver apparently lost control of the truck and struck a tree about 11 a.m.

Andrew Wetter, 38, and his friends were building an addition onto Wetter’s house about 50 feet from the crash site when they heard the sound of the impact.

“It almost sounded like a gun going off” or a head-on collision, one of Wetter’s friends, Keith Sexton, 25, said.

While Wetter’s wife, Paulette, called 911, Wetter, Sexton, Chris Roberts, 24, Steve Spriggs, 62, and Don Crites, 58, ran to the crash scene and found the engine, the gas tank and the bed of the pickup already engulfed in flames. The passenger compartment had not begun to burn, but the men could see live shotgun shells lying on the floor of the truck and also on the ground around it. Gasoline was flowing from the engine.

Wetter and Sexton ran back to the house to get fire extinguishers.

“I threw Keith a fire extinguisher, but it was not enough,” Wetton said. They emptied the extinguishers into the fire, but it burned practically unabated.

Roberts pulled the passenger from the cab, but the driver was pinned underneath the steering wheel. The driver’s side door was aflame and crumpled against the charred tree.

“The kids kept saying, ‘It’s hot! It’s hot!’” Sexton said.

Although he admits the shells and flowing gasoline gave him pause, Crites was inside the cab for about a minute, pulling out the driver, who was still seat-belted and pinned.

“It was just instinct,” Crites said. “I just did what was needed to be done.”

The truck was still burning when the sheriff’s department, a truck from the Boone County Fire Protection District and an emergency crew arrived at the scene four minutes after the 911 call.

The two teens, Travis Mechlin and Kyle Kleinsorge, were taken to University Hospital where they were treated for minor burns and other injuries. Mechlin was released Tuesday night. Kleinsorge remained overnight and was listed in good condition Wednesday afternoon.

“The fire eventually engulfed the passenger compartment,” said Major Tom Reddin. “If (the group of friends) had not acted collectively, (the youths) might have not survived.”

Mechlin’s mother, Libby Mechlin, said the accident happened when one of the tires on Kleinsorge’s truck briefly went off the road and he overcorrected. Her son told her the truck fishtailed and hit the tree.

She said she had been busy taking care of her son since the accident and had not yet spoken to his rescuers but planned to soon. Still, she said, “There’s no way to thank someone for saving your child’s life.”

As for talk of heroics, Wetter downplayed it, saying, “I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t have done something.”

Libby Mechlin had a different point of view: “It may have been nothing to them, but it was everything to me.”

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