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Garden State Man Pulls Two from Burning Car in Route 80 Accident

Smythe's friend, Rudy Palma, captured this image of the fiery crash that occurred on July 4. Credits: Rudy Palma
Duncan Smythe of Westfield pulled the driver and a passenger from a vehicle that veered across Route 80, hit a car on the shoulder and burst into flames. Credits: Duncan Smythe

ROCKAWAY, NJ – When Duncan Smythe of Westfield left for a Fourth of July gathering at a friend’s home in Sussex County, he didn’t expect to pull two people from a fiery car after a crash on Route 80.

Smythe, 55, was driving west on Route 80 along with friend Rudy Palma when he saw a car veer across the road and strike a Toyota on the shoulder with what he described as “a lot of force.”

The driver of the vehicle on the shoulder, Michael O’Brien, 49, was outside of his car adjusting his bicycle when he was struck by Mary Potts, 72, and killed instantly, according to police. A rear passenger in his car, Mary Briggs, 69, was critically injured and taken to Morristown Medical Center, Trooper Lawrence Peele of the NJ State Police said.

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“The two cars both left the ground, spun around, hit the guard rail and one car burst into flame immediately,” Smythe said. “I pulled over. The car I approached had smoke coming out from the hood, but fortunately the door was not locked.”

Smythe pulled Potts, who he described as disoriented, and her passenger out from the car. The passenger, who was at least 6-feet tall, was wedged under the dashboard, Smythe said.

“The car was fully engulfed in 90 seconds,” Smythe said. “It was a hell of a blaze.”

Smythe, who works a realtor, graduated from Westfield High School in 1970. He worked as a police officer in Bridgewater during the late 1970s and 1980’s and served as an EMT on the Westfield Rescue Squad for 25 years. That training kicked in as he approached the smoking car with focus and determination to act quickly, he said.

“All I was thinking was, ‘I have to get them out,’” he said. “I think because of experience I was just focused. People watch TV and think that cars explode, but they don’t. Gasoline doesn’t explode, it burns. People kept telling me that it was going to blow, but I knew it wasn’t going to.”

A few days later, Smythe said he’s reflecting on the adrenaline that kicked in when he saw the accident.

“Adrenaline is a wonderful thing,” Smythe said. “It didn’t occur to me that the man in the passenger seat outweighed me by at least 50 pounds and I picked him up like a feather. What they say about adrenaline is true.”

Despite his actions after the crash, Smythe prefers that well-wishers refrain from calling him a hero.

“Please don’t use the word hero,” he said. “I don’t like that. I was just lucky and happy that I was in the right place at the right time. I don’t really feel it was heroic. Guys losing their legs in Iraq are heroic.”

At this time, the crash remains under investigation, Peele said. He could not comment on Smythe’s actions at the scene.

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