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Carthage man saves neighbor from exploded pickup truck

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CARTHAGE — When Richard C. Robinson went outside to clear the driveway at his Van Brocklin Road residence last week, he never expected he might have to save his neighbor’s life.

But that’s exactly what happened on the afternoon of Feb. 5, when Mr. Robinson, 56, heard his neighbor William B. McCallops, 84, struggling to get his red Ford pickup truck into his driveway.

Mr. McCallops was returning from a doctor’s appointment and a stop at the supermarket. Lake-effect bands rapidly were depositing snow across the area and Mr. Robinson estimated that there was around a foot on the ground when his neighbor’s truck got stuck.

Two or three minutes after he went next door to help, Mr. Robinson jumped on the back of the vehicle to help give Mr. McCallops enough traction to get it into his two-bay garage. That’s when Mr. Robinson noticed smoke starting to creep out from under the hood.

Now, both men are glad they couldn’t get the truck inside.

Mr. Robinson jumped down and quickly wrapped his arm around Mr. McCallops, who uses an oxygen tank and has limited mobility, and helped him out of the truck. Mr. Robinson said he grabbed the oxygen tank that Mr. McCallops was using at the time, but a spare tank was left inside.

When there’s smoke, there’s fire. Less than a minute after Mr. Robinson helped Mr. McCallops out of the truck, the battery exploded, blasting the metal hood off. Mr. McCallops said he gave his phone to Mr. Robinson to call the fire department just as the two front tires burst.

Mr. Robinson’s son Tucker was returning home on the school bus from Carthage Central High School. Mr. Robinson said that when the bus drove by, the students on it moved to look at the burning truck. At that point, the smoke was getting thicker and the flames had begun to peek out of the undercarriage.

“It all happened so fast,” Mr. Robinson said.

Then the spare oxygen tank in the truck’s cab exploded, launching bright flames 10 feet into the sky.

“It sounded like a grenade going off,” Mr. McCallops said.

He said the tank that exploded was a portable one a bit smaller than those he usually uses. But it burst with enough power to knock pictures and books off the walls at both men’s houses and to leave the front half of Mr. McCallops’s truck an empty metal shell, burnt white by the tall flames.

Mr. McCallops lives with his daughter, Laura, who was not home at the time of the fire. He said the pickup is Laura’s, but he often used it as well.

The truck now lies in a snowbank off the side of Mr. McCallops’s driveway after the Champion and West Carthage fire departments, who responded to the scene, moved it because it was blocking one bay of his garage.

Though Mr. McCallops has lived in the area for 30 years, and Mr. Robinson for 10, both said they have never seen anything like this before.

Neither man had prior experience fighting a fire, but that didn’t stop Mr. Robinson from at least trying. He said he grabbed a fire extinguisher from Mr. McCallops’s house and ran back outside to help subdue the flames. However, he soon realized the fire extinguisher was no match for the inferno.

“The whole undercarriage was on fire,” Mr. Robinson said.

Even though the truck was totaled, both men were unharmed. They said it could have been much worse.

Mr. Robinson said he had two things running through his mind during the ordeal: hoping the garage didn’t burn down and that Mr. McCallops didn’t have a heart attack.

Mr. McCallops was transported to Carthage Area Hospital as a precautionary measure. He said the truck was fully insured and he already is thinking about what step he’ll take next, though he admitted he is in no rush.

“I’m just going to sit still for a while,” Mr. McCallops said. “Though I’ll probably get four-wheel drive next time.”

With a smile, Mr. McCallops said he was distraught about losing the $22 worth of groceries he had just purchased, including a jar of pickles that exploded and a pan of brownies he was hoping to have with supper that night.

Though both men can joke about the incident now, they both know how close they were to disaster.

Mr. Robinson said he happened to be outside his house clearing snow and knew that Mr. McCallops was the only one home at the time. So when he heard the truck struggling to make it up the driveway, Mr. Robinson said he decided to go over and help. Mr. McCallops was told by fire investigators that the cause of the fire was likely a short in the electrical wiring and what started as a push up the driveway turned into a towering flame in about five minutes. The vehicle became a smoldering metal shell in less than 15 minutes.

Mr. Robinson said the fire likely started when he was still pushing on the back of the truck and Mr. McCallops was sitting behind the wheel, while the two were still oblivious to what was happening beneath the hood.

“I’m glad I helped him out,” Mr. Robinson said. Mr. McCallops agreed.

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