WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council recently honored Tom Ronnie, James Bradley and Mark Smith for their heroic actions on Feb. 28, when the three men helped rescue an unconscious woman who was trapped inside her Jeep within the school pickup zone at Seton Hall Prep (SHP).
Ronnie and Bradley, two retired Essex County Sheriff’s Department detectives who now work as school security officers, and Smith, Dean of Men at SHP, were assisted by students and other personnel as they pulled the woman from her vehicle. According to Ronnie, the woman clung to life in the critical moments leading up to the arrival of the EMS.
“It was just a regular day,” said Ronnie. “I was approached by a freshman who said, ‘Sir, sir, sir, there’s a woman in a car. She’s unconscious and all her doors are locked.’”
Ronnie took his radio and informed Bradley and Smith of the emergency, along with the school secretary, Stephanie Gallo, who contacted 911. Prior to the arrival of medics and the West Orange Police Department, however, the actions of Ronnie, Bradley and Smith would prove decisive.
When Ronnie arrived, he said students were “tugging on doors and banging on windows.”
“I immediately checked the condition of the driver,” he said. “She was belted in, slumped over, unconscious, with vomit and blood on her jacket.”
Ronnie tried to gain entry to the vehicle by shattering the back window with his portable radio, but said his radio shattered instead.
“I ran across the street, grabbed a big boulder and threw it through her rear window directly behind the driver’s seat,” he said. “I broke it out, and I opened the door and reached in to unlock the front door.”
According to Ronnie, the car was filled with toxic fumes. He discovered that the unconscious woman had been transporting cookie dough in dry ice that she picked up from East Orange and drove to SHP. At some point, Ronnie said, the dry ice began to leak through one of the boxes and fill the car with fumes, causing the woman to have a seizure.
Ronnie also recalled that the car was in park with the engine still running.
“There were crazy fumes in there,” said Ronnie. “I had no idea what it was initially. All I know is it burnt my eyes, my nose, my lungs, immediately.”
Jumping out of the car, Ronnie informed the others assisting with the rescue that it was urgent to pull the woman out. Despite the burning sensation in his eyes and face, Ronnie re-entered the car to continue the rescue.
“I reached in again and undid her seat belt and unlocked her door,” said Ronnie. “They pulled her out and I shut the vehicle off.”
Outside on the grass, Smith checked the woman’s corroded artery for a pulse and felt nothing. Ronnie checked her wrist for a pulse and also felt nothing. Her eyes were wide open, he said.
“She took a real shallow breath, and maybe 20 seconds later she took another real shallow breath,” he said. “We started talking to her, moving her around a little bit, helping her get some of the bad air out. She started breathing regularly. She closed her eyes, and we were saying ‘stay with us, stay with us, squeeze my fingers.’ She actually squeezed my finger.”
This all occurred in the minutes it took the EMS to arrive, according to Ronnie. Upon arrival, EMS administered oxygen and brought the woman to Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. After a few days there and some time resting at home, she made a full recovery.
The swift and decisive actions of Ronnie, Bradley, Smith, the students and other members of the SHP community who aided in the woman’s rescue, along with the first responders, prevented the freak accident from claiming her life.
Ronnie said he believes that getting the woman outside into the fresh air was crucial to her survival.
“I think it was just muscle memory,” said Ronnie. “There was no question what had to be done.”
Shortly after the woman’s recovery, Ronnie was summoned to the school’s main office and told he had a visitor. The woman had come to thank those who acted to save her life.
“We both teared up and gave each other a hug,” said Ronnie. “She gave us each a very nice card thanking us for what we did. She thanked me for allowing her to have additional time with her family.”
During the visit, the woman called Ronnie and Smith her angels. Ronnie, Smith and Bradley were presented with Certificates of Appreciation from the Township of West Orange during the most recent council meeting.