Dramatic rescue saves man trapped in fiery car wreck

A Norwalk man was in the burn unit at Bridgeport Hospital on Wednesday following an accident Tuesday evening in which the car he was driving became "engulfed in flames," according to Wilton police.

Willie Singleton, 52, of 22 Center Street was trapped in his 1996 Oldsmobile Cutlass after apparently driving off Hurlbutt Street into the woods by Maplewood Road. There were no passengers in the car.

Police were called to the accident at approximately 6:20 p.m.

Sgt. Thomas Tunney was first to arrive.

"I got there, the car was on fire," he said. People at the scene told him someone was in the car.

"When I got down to him, he was still in the car. The car was completely engulfed," Sgt. Tunney said, adding "the heat pushed me back.

"I tried to grab him but it flamed back over again." At that point, something hit him in the face, although he said he is not sure what.

"I tried again, but he was still hung up," he said, referring to Mr. Singleton. "The third time I pulled him forward and out of the car."

While Sgt. Tunney was down at the car, Officers Robert Cipolla and Anna Tornello arrived, and using fire extinguishers from their cruisers, attempted to quell the flames enough to reach Mr. Singleton.

"If he wasn't pumping that out up there," he said of Officer Cipolla's use of the fire extinguisher, "I couldn't have stayed as close as I did."

He also had praise for Officer Tornello, who brought oxygen down to Mr. Singleton and Officer Paul Lichtenberger, who helped with first aid.

Wilton Fire Truck 5 was already on the road when the call came in and was the first fire vehicle to arrive on the scene, according to Wilton fire Lt. Tom Cassin. Truck 5 is a ladder and rescue truck. It was followed by Engine 3 from fire headquarters and Engine 2 from the Marhoffer station.

Firefighters also used fire extinguishers to reduce the fire while deploying hose lines.

Firefighter Bill Wilson joined Sgt. Tunney, both reaching into the car to pull Mr. Singleton out, police said. With the assistance of Officer Cipolla and firefighter Jeff Locher, they brought Mr. Singleton to a safe location.

"When we arrived on the scene, both the engine and passenger compartment were on fire," Mr. Locher said. The car was on its side, driver's side down, he said.

"When we got on the scene, the police officers were able to shield the occupant" with the fire extinguishers. "They did a good job," he said.

"We assisted," he continued. "I don't know how far he was out prior to our arrival. He was on the ground face down. We got him free of the car."

"There was a lot of fire," said Mr. Locher, a 12-year veteran with the Fire Department. "It was a serious accident. All things considered, it could have gone the other way."

Mr. Locher said Mr. Singleton was conscious, but "definitely in pain" with obvious burns to his lower extremities and facial injuries. Because the car was in the woods, firefighters had to use chain saws to clear a path to remove Mr. Singleton from the wreckage.

"The fire guys were phenomenal," said Sgt. Tunney, a 28-year veteran of the police force. "You couldn't see the road once you were down (in the woods) looking up. I can't say enough about them."

EMS personnel first took Mr. Singleton to Norwalk Hospital. He was later moved to Bridgeport Hospital. Sgt. Tunney received minor injuries and was treated at the scene by Wilton EMS, police said.

The fire was fully extinguished with the hose line from Engine 3, Lt. Cassin said. "It was a significantly hot fire that consumed most of the car."

While it is "not the norm" for a car to catch fire after an accident, Lt. Cassin said, it was not unusual either, given the amount of damage sustained by the vehicle.

"Car fires are somewhat common," Mr. Locher said. "You never know what you're going to come upon. ... You try to get your game plan and plan of attack in your head while en route.

"This was definitely a harder rescue situation because of where the vehicle was, the damage to the car and the fact there was an occupant inside."

"It was a full crew effort," Sgt. Tunney said, "including the guys on the desk. It was a phenomenal job across the board."

Hurlbutt Street was closed for several hours while the fire was extinguished and then while the police accident reconstruction unit conducted its investigation, which is ongoing, police said. The road was closed in the vicinity of Cannon Road and was reopened late Tuesday night, close to midnight.

Eighteen volunteer CERT members were deployed to assist police.