Michael Hickey can still hear the moaning and screaming coming from inside the van. He can still feel the heat from the intense ball of flames.
"It was just a . . . mess of people," he said of the scene on the Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel, Queens, in July 2006.
On his way home to Patchogue, Hickey had stopped when he saw the burning ambulette with nine people in it, which had crashed into a telephone pole.
"The driver was kind of hanging out of the window, yelling and screaming," Hickey recalled.
"I wasn't thinking. I just ran to the thing and tried to get out as many people as I could."
Hickey saved two people; Karl Hawkins, then 44 and weighing about 400 pounds, who was on top of petite Jean Hastic, then age 60.
He was able to pull out Hawkins and then went back and freed Hastic.
Five people died in the fire; the other two either walked out on their own or were helped out.
"I wish I could have been there a couple more minutes earlier," he said of those who were lost.
"It was a defeating feeling to watch that."
Today, Michael Hickey drives past the scene of the crash about 10 times a day.
Because he works for a trucking company, he often has to drive along Cross Bay Boulevard in the same area.
"After four years there's still a burn mark on the ground there," Hickey, 39, said Thursday. "I always think about it."
The van had been headed back to a Brooklyn adult home where the passengers lived.
Hastic still lives there but could not be reached Thursday.
Hawkins no longer lives there and also couldn't be reached. After the crash, Hastic, who had a broken leg, and Hawkins were both hospitalized.
Hickey, who was not injured during the rescue, said that because the people he saved are mentally disabled, "nobody could say 'thank you for helping out.' "
But two days ago, Hickey got a letter in the mail saying his heroic deed earned him a medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund. He said the award is symbolic of the survivors' gratitude.
"I was jumping up and down," he said of reading the letter.
The $5,000 prize, he said, will mean more spending money than he anticipated for a vacation he had already planned to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, next week.