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Published: Saturday, 2/19/2005

Last-minute driving assignment propels woman into hero status

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tractor-trailers provide a backdrop along U.S. 24 for Patricia Rupert of Grand Rapids, who is being honored for her efforts in rescuing an injured woman from behind the wheel of a burning van in November. Tractor-trailers provide a backdrop along U.S. 24 for Patricia Rupert of Grand Rapids, who is being honored for her efforts in rescuing an injured woman from behind the wheel of a burning van in November.
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Patricia Rupert wasn't supposed to be a driver Nov. 20 for the youth group at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, Ohio, the day a tractor-trailer slammed into the rear of three vehicles on U.S. 24.

But after one of the drivers became sick that day, Mrs. Rupert was called in to help.

It was that twist of fate that put the mother of two at the scene of the four-vehicle crash, facing the burning vehicle of Jillian Badenhop and hearing her calls for help.

Today, Mrs. Rupert, 43, of Grand Rapids will be honored by the Liberty Center Volunteer Fire Department for her bravery that day when she mustered the strength to pull Ms. Badenhop through the open window of her burning vehicle.

"I heard, 'Someone get me out of here,' and then I saw her moving around," Ms. Badenhop said, recalling the moments after a semi crashed into a line of vehicles.

"I didn't even think about whether I could do it. I just knew I had to do something," she said.

The crash that left Ms. Badenhop with severe burns and catapulted Mrs. Rupert into the role of a hero still haunts her.

Tears well in her eyes when she thinks about how much worse the accident could have been.

It was just after noon that Saturday when a caravan of youth left to deliver food to a nursing home in Napoleon. Mrs. Rupert, at the wheel of her minivan, was driving her daughter, Kathleen, and three other teens.

An eastbound semi, trying to pass slower vehicles, caused Mrs. Rupert and the other westbound traffic to slow. But a semi behind them couldn't.

The truck crashed into the rear of Ms. Badenhop's vehicle, setting it ablaze and pushing her off the road. The truck next hit a minivan full of youth behind Mrs. Rupert, then hit her vehicle, forcing her to spin on the roadway.

After making sure the teens in her van were all right, Mrs. Rupert got out of her minivan. She was in the direct line of sight of Ms. Badenhop's burning vehicle.

"It was just so surreal," Mrs. Rupert said. "I pulled her out and fell. As we were getting up, the car exploded."

The scene became a mass of confusion. Emergency personnel clambered to help the injured. Ohio Highway Patrol troopers tried to collect statements of those involved. Mrs. Rupert looked around to find the kids from her minivan.

Now, nearly three months later, Mrs. Rupert says she can still smell the smoke and hear the screams. She's humbled that others would consider her worthy of an award.

Liberty Center Fire Chief Randy McClure said in his more than 30 years on the department, he has never seen such courage. That's why he wanted to recognize and thank Mrs. Rupert.

Among those who will be at the Liberty Center fire station at 3 p.m. today to see Mrs. Rupert receive a plaque are members of the Badenhop family.

After two surgeries and weeks of recuperating, Ms. Badenhop returned to work part time this week as a physical therapy assistant, her mother, Kathleen, said.

She's finally returning to some sense of a normal life, Mrs. Badenhop said. And the family has Mrs. Rupert to thank.

"There's just no words. It was just a miracle, an angel. It's still so unbelievable that it all happened, and we owe her," Mrs. Badenhop said. "If it wasn't for her, we would not have Jillian. Because of her, we have a second chance."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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