Thomas Zelezny was coming home from a roller hockey game just after midnight Tuesday when he saw a Ford Explorer had crashed into a tree in a neighbor's yard in Manorville. He called 911 and watched the car catch fire.
Minutes later, Suffolk County Officer Denis O'Connor was dispatched to the scene on Florence Drive. As his patrol car neared, sirens wailing, he saw the glow of the blaze. Zelezny and one other man were outside, pounding on the SUV's window.
The three worked together frantically, the scene lit by headlights and flames, to smash the back window. Finally, they hauled out the driver, his nose and mouth covered in soot. He was conscious and speaking.
"It was absolutely incredible that this guy with black soot around his mouth and nose just started talking after that whole ordeal," O'Connor said.
Brad Klaus, 34, of Manorville, who crashed around 12:30 a.m., was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead to be treated for "nonlife-threatening injuries," police said.
Klaus, a construction worker, was back home Tuesday night and declined to be interviewed.
John Klaus, 63, said his son was following him home after running an errand when the crash happened. "All of a sudden, I didn't see the headlights," Klaus recalled. "There is a slight curve in the road, he misjudged it . . . and hit a tree. Then it got worse from there."
Klaus said he was grateful for the motorists who stopped to help despite the dangers.
O'Connor, 31, a seven-year veteran, and Zelezny, 26, brushed off the title of hero and lauded each other instead. No one got the name of the third man, they said.
Zelezny said O'Connor went "above and beyond." The officer and the other Good Samaritan were "very brave," he said.
"I'm not going to place myself in the category of being a hero either," said Zelezny, who shares a house on Florence Drive with his father, also named Thomas.
Zelezny, a 2010 Fairfield University graduate, recalled they had no choice but to intervene when they saw the driver was stuck. "We tried telling him to just get out. But none of the doors would open," he said.
O'Connor raced around to the trunk of his patrol car to get a fire extinguisher. Then he saw Klaus kicking the window. "All I could hear was the thud of the kicking against the window, and it wasn't breaking," he said.
O'Connor grabbed a window punch, a pointed metal object, and hit the window as Zelezny kept hammering at it with a shovel. Finally, it shattered.
"The smoke started billowing out and the fire started spreading across the roof," said O'Connor, who sprayed the flames with the extinguisher.
"We have his leg," someone yelled, O'Connor recalled.
The men dragged Klaus out through the back. He sat upright and started talking. "I'm just glad the guy's alive and we got him out safely," Zelezny said. "It's my good deed for the day, I guess."