Good Samaritan helps pair away from burning car

After spotting a taillight glowing in the woods off Sunrise Highway early Tuesday morning, Joseph Tortorice, an off-duty lieutenant from the Eastport Fire Department, helped rescue the driver and passenger in a wreck before their car’s engine burst into flames. Videojournalist: Chuck Fadely (Dec. 24, 2013)

From the corner of his eye, Joseph Tortorice glimpsed a taillight glowing in the woods off Sunrise Highway. Pure luck that he saw it.

But surely trouble, too, sensed the off-duty lieutenant from the Eastport Fire Department.

He pulled his truck over to the eastbound shoulder and darted to the scene of a one-car East Moriches crash, where two victims lay outside the passenger side door of a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta.


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"My first reaction was just to get to the scene to see if everything was all right," Tortorice said Tuesday, after helping the driver, a woman, 23, and her passenger, a man, 27, to safety as the car's engine caught fire and burst into flames moments after the 1:14 a.m. accident.

A police spokeswoman, calling Tortorice a "Good Samaritan," said, "We don't know if either person could have gotten themselves away from the car on their own."

Tortorice deflected praise, saying providing such help often is routine in his role as a volunteer firefighter. But he acknowledged it was fortunate he happened by when he did.

"Who knows how long they might have been out there before someone would have seen them, is what police told me," Tortorice said. "I'm just glad I happened to see it, really."

Tortorice said when he got to the car, the woman was on her side, on the ground, and the man was trying to get up.

Tortorice said he wanted both victims to stay on the ground, to prevent any possible injuries from getting worse.

"I was fighting him to lay down, to try to save his neck, back and spine," Tortorice said. "Then the engine started to go up in flames."

Tortorice moved to pull the woman away from the flames, and the passenger got up to help, he said.

Once they moved the woman about 60 feet from the fire, Tortorice said he was able to get the man to lay down, too.

He made sure both were conscious, he said, and he got a sweatshirt from his truck to cover the woman.

"They knew general information, like their names and what year it was, who the president is, but they didn't know what had happened," he said. "They definitely were confused."

Police said no criminality is involved in the crash that occurred about a half-mile west of Exit 61. The driver lost control and went into a wooded area, police said.

Both victims, from Riverhead, were taken to Stony Brook University Hospital with injuries not considered life-threatening, police said.

According to Tortorice, the woman had a bad ankle injury, perhaps broken, and the man had a laceration at the top of his forehead and bruising to his head.

Tortorice remembered that when he first got to the car, he couldn't see the man's face. "All I could see was blood."

Tortorice said he's used to acting quickly during such emergencies. But to respond to a crash alone, while not on duty? "It's wild," he said. "You just don't come upon stuff like that too often."

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