Even though the deputies and trooper are not his men, Chief Paul Cooper felt their actions on the early morning of June 23 warranted recognition from Martinez-Columbia County Fire Rescue at its annual board meeting.
“Anybody we feel has done something to make this a better world,” Chief Paul Cooper said.
At 1:46 a.m., officers were dispatched to an accident on Interstate 20 near mile marker 187. They found a Ford F-350 ablaze on the guardrail and Joseph Banks, of Dallas, Ga., about halfway out the driver’s-side window. He was caught by his seat belt, and his legs were pinned between the seat and the door.
Trooper 1st Class Matthew MacDonald and Deputies Bobby Atma and Wes Ward were first on the scene and immediately sprang into action.
MacDonald said they used a crowbar to free Banks’ legs and cut his seat belt. The fire department arrived as they were freeing Banks and provided water to tame the flames.
Banks told The Chronicle he thought he might have fallen asleep at the wheel that night. The first thing he remembers seeing is three officers running toward him with “complete disregard for their own safety,” Banks said.
“All they were worried about was getting me out,” he said.
Cooper presented the three men with gold pins, saying he thought they saved Banks’ life.
Cooper said he decided to give Gary Thigpen and James Frazier the Firefighter of the Year award because of an incident in November in which they carried a woman out of her burning home.
On the evening of Nov. 17, firefighters were called to a townhouse on New Petersburg Circle and were told there might be people inside.
Firefighters broke down the door to the townhome, which was full of smoke. They had to crawl on the floor and follow their fire hose in and out.
They found Demetria D’Antignac collapsed near the back door and pulled her out, handing her off to an ambulance. She spent time at the Joseph Still Burn Center in Augusta.
On Monday night, Cooper gave the firefighters a letter from D’Antignac’s family.
Mike Oates, a Columbia County resident who was saved by CPR from two firefighters who found him collapsed during his regular run, helped present the lifesaver awards.
Oates said he had a heart attack during mile 11 of a 12-mile run while training for a half-marathon. Two firefighters began CPR and continued for six minutes. He is now starting to run again.
At the presentation, Oates embraced Lt. Jamie Champion, one of the men who had saved him.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here,” Oates said. “God placed angels in my path.”