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Published: Friday, 12/22/2000

Toledoan pulled from van fire, but wheelchair lost

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Dan Hice said he will never forget the “ungodly screams” that came from around the corner of his West Toledo house yesterday morning.

His neighbor, John T. Woodward, who cannot walk because of polio, was lying in the snow just a few feet from his burning van he had just escaped.

Fire investigators say the cause of the fire is not known, but believe an electrical short may have occurred in the dashboard or engine compartment.

“I just asked God to save whoever was over there,” said Mr. Hice, who ran from his house on Glenn Street to Mr. Woodward's house on Chippewa Road about 200 feet away and just north of Alexis Road.

Mr. Hice said he managed to pull Mr. Woodward, a 350-pound man, only a few feet. His biggest fear was that the burning vehicle would explode.

Within seconds, Mr. Woodward's wife, Sharon, and the couple's son, Nathan, 17, saw what was happening. Nathan, a senior at Whitmer High School, joined Mr. Hice in the rescue. The two of them dragged Mr. Woodward into his home.

Mr. Woodward, 50, was treated in Toledo Hospital for smoke inhalation. Other than feeling a little woozy from the smoke, his biggest injuries were the bumps and bruises he got from being dragged across his front yard, he said.

He was back at his house by midafternoon, coping with the fact that hours before he could have been killed.

“I'm not traumatized. I'm ticked off. I just lost a brand new wheelchair that will be hard to replace,” he said.

After spending most of his life on crutches, Mr. Woodward had just gotten a custom-made electric wheelchair in November.

The wheelchair, which Mr. Woodward valued at more than $40,000, was destroyed in the fire. So was his 1989 van - a former 10-passenger wheelchair transport bus he valued at $12,000. He had purchased the vehicle at an auction in October and converted it into a van.

Mr. Woodward said he was warming up the van about 7:15 a.m. when he saw flames coming up the driver's side door. Sitting in the driver's seat, he made a split-second decision to roll out the passenger side as fast as he could. The passenger seat had been removed when the vehicle was remodeled to accommodate his needs.

“I understood exactly what was going to happen. I knew there was no time to save me and the chair,” Mr. Woodward said.

Once on the ground outside the vehicle, Mr. Woodward squirmed as best he could. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies,” he mused. “I know how to get around on my elbows.”

But he conceded that he couldn't have gotten through without help from Mr. Hice and Nathan.

Mr. Hice, who described himself as a devout Christian, said he believes God answered the prayer he said as he ran to Mr. Woodward's aid.

“I wasn't no hero. I just hope and pray if something like that happened to me or my family, that there would be somebody to help me,” he said.

If not a hero, then what? Mr. Woodward's guardian angel?

“That sounds nice,” he said.



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