The morning commute took an unexpected turn for a Melville assistant fire chief Monday when he stumbled upon a roadside accident and pulled the driver to safety moments before the overturned car went up in flames.
Third Assistant Chief Jason Bernfeld, 32, of Melville, got on the Northern State Parkway at Route 110, headed west to his job as an NYPD mounted unit officer, when just before he got to Round Swamp Road on the Melville-West Hills border he saw “a taillight in the woods, sticking up, in a ravine.”
Bernfeld stopped his car, backed up maybe 200 feet, and that’s when he saw it: A Ford Crown Victoria, down in an embankment, flipped onto its passenger side, crashed into a tree. His first thought was maybe it was an unmarked police car. It wasn’t.
Bernfeld said when he reached the car he found the driver, a man believed to be in his 30s, complaining of pain in his neck and back, hanging from his seat belt.
The driver asked Bernfeld if his nose was bleeding.
“I told him no,” Bernfeld said, recalling that he told the man to remain calm, as he called his dispatcher at the Melville Fire Department at about 6:20 a.m.
Seconds later, Bernfeld said, he saw a few licks of flame coming from the driver’s side dashboard.
Quickly, the assistant chief, who grew up in Melville and has been with the department in some capacity since he first joined as a teen, ran back to his car, grabbed a seat-belt cutter and a fire extinguisher, and ran back to the scene.
“The whole time, I could hear him [the driver] screaming, since the melting plastic from the dashboard was dripping onto his leg,” Bernfeld said.
Maybe 30 seconds later, Bernfeld was back at the car, where, he said, “I hit the fire quick with the extinguisher, then cut the guy out.”
He pulled the driver from the Crown Victoria, which, he said, was engulfed in flames just minutes later.
The fire was extinguished by about two dozen Melville firefighters, who arrived at the scene at 6:25 a.m. with two engines, two ambulances, a heavy rescue truck, paramedics and another chief. The driver, whose identity was not released, was transported to Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow for treatment of cuts, pain to his neck and back, and leg burns.
His condition was not immediately known.
Bernfeld said the man told him “he’d been cut off by another driver” and had gone off the road. No other cars were at the scene.
The accident is under investigation by State Police, which also responded.
Bernfeld said he’s responded to accident scenes and car fires through the years but he’s never had a situation like that, when he actually pulled someone from a vehicle just before it burst into flames.
“I was just out of breath from dragging him out of the car,” Bernfeld said when it was all over. “He [the driver] was a little more in shock, from the crash, I think.”
A passerby who stopped at the scene moments after Bernfeld had rescued the driver turned out to be a Nassau County police communications operator at the 911 call center in Westbury.
That person, Joseph C. Sperber, 50, of Smithtown, is a former chief with the Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department.
Sperber said the driver “was very fortunate, because the car was overturned and he was definitely in a situation where he needed assistance rendered immediately. Luckily, Jason was there, he was able to render aid, and he was able to call for additional assistance . . . He was definitely in the right place.”
All in a day’s work, said Bernfeld, who when it was all over said: “I just called my lieutenant, said I’m going to be a little late today . . . He said he understood.”