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Cops: Officer, firefighter rescue driver in fiery LIE crash

Suffolk County police respond to a crash on

Suffolk County police respond to a crash on the eastbound Long Island Expressway at Exit 60 on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Credit: Jim Staubitser

A Suffolk County police officer and an off-duty firefighter were hailed as “guardian angels” Wednesday for rescuing a Medford woman from a fiery crash on the Long Island Expressway, authorities said.

Melissa Ortiz, 23, was heading east on the LIE in Ronkonkoma when her Ford Expedition collided with a National Grid truck at about 10:50 a.m. The impact caused the SUV to overturn and burst into flames in the HOV lane, police said.

Ortiz was trapped, but Highway Patrol Officer Thomas Mutarelli and Elmont volunteer firefighter Jeffrey Dupoux happened to be nearby.

They pulled over and teamed up to free Ortiz, pulling her to safety through a broken window with help from at least one other Good Samaritan.

“I was on the inside, Jeffrey was on the outside unleashing the woman from her seat belt,” Mutarelli recalled afterward. “We smelled the fire from inside the vehicle.”

Dupoux said: “The engine compartment just had a small fire, but as we were pulling her out it started to grow.”

Ortiz and the driver of the National Grid truck, identified as Frederick Foote, 36, of Yaphank, were transported to Stony Brook University Hospital, where they were treated and released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini called the rescuers “guardian angels who were at the right place, at the right time.”

“This is truly an act of bravery and professionalism,” Sini said.

Mutarelli said he was on his way home from court, in uniform but off duty, and was approaching Exit 60 when he witnessed the crash.

The SUV landed on its roof, skidding to a stop, the officer said.

“The utility truck started fishtailing and taking up all four lanes of the expressway, losing equipment that was on it — ladders and cones, and other metal objects that were flying off of it,” Mutarelli said.

He pulled over and blocked the HOV lane to prevent other motorists from hitting the SUV. Then he said he ran to the passenger side of the vehicle, getting there as Dupoux reached the other side.

“We got down onto the ground,” the officer said. “We noticed there was one woman inside. She was trapped.”

Dupoux unhooked the woman’s seat belt, and Mutarelli said he “cradled her and pulled her out of the passenger side window.”

Mutarelli remembered thinking it was “paramount” that they get the driver out quickly.

“As soon as we exited the vehicle ... and we were moving her away from the vehicle ... [the SUV] was fully involved,” he said.

John K. Smith, an independent insurance adjuster from Bayport, said he was driving west on the LIE, on his way to a law office in Hauppauge, when he saw the accident.

Smith, 56, said he pulled over onto the right shoulder and ran across the highway to help.

“I could see the SUV’s undercarriage on fire near the HOV lane,” said Smith, who saw the woman trapped inside as he neared the vehicle.

“Some guy was trying to climb in and I said, ‘This thing is on fire, we have to get her out.’ When I got there the flames were about a foot tall.”

Smith said he assisted with the rescue, describing Ortiz as conscious but in shock.

“We got her out before the flames got big,” he said.

Ortiz and Foote did not respond to requests for comment.

Police said the cause of the crash, which shut down the eastbound LIE for several hours, was under investigation.

With Khristopher J. Brooks and Lisa Irizarry

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