Rescuer cites hand of God: 'I was put there for a reason that morning'
Earl Wickline did not know why he woke up before dawn that Saturday and headed to work two hours early.
Now he believes he does.
"I was put there for a reason that morning," he said.
Shortly after 6 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2013, Wickline pulled an unconscious Robert Braley from his burning Jeep. Police said he saved the man's life - and Braley's 11-year-old dog Harry, who was riding shotgun.
For his brave and selfless actions that morning, Wickline will be honored with a Union Leader Hero Award at a State House ceremony on Tuesday.
But Wickline, 64, who lives in Londonderry, gives credit where he says it's due. After the rescue, he said, "I went to church, and I can't tell you how many times I thanked the Lord for putting me there."
He's heard from friends and relatives he hadn't heard from in years. A supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service's Logistics and Distribution Center in Nashua, he got a personal letter from the postmaster general and a call from the folks who give out the Carnegie Medals for Civilian Heroism.
"It changed my life," he said. "It really did."
But the real reward is the feeling that an old sorrow has been lifted from his shoulders and heart.
When he was 18, Wickline was a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Clarksburg, Mass. "When you grow up in a small town, you're a fireman whether you want to be or not," he said with a smile. "Because there aren't that many able-bodied souls, everybody goes. It's just what you do."
Wickline responded with his father to a house fire early one Saturday morning in late March 1969. It was the first and last fire he ever went to.
A woman and five of her six children perished in the fire that day.
Wickline has never been able to shake the memory of the firefighters, who had tried in vain to save them, laying the mother on the ground and placing her children around her. "All I could think of was a mother dog with her puppies," he said.
That's why Wickline reacted so quickly when he saw Braley's burning Jeep that morning; he just couldn't watch it happen again.
The Wrangler had crashed into a tree but its wheels were still spinning, which was fanning the flames that were spreading through the vehicle.
Wickline ran to the driver's side, where thick smoke prevented him from seeing the man at the wheel. He felt for the key, turned off the vehicle, then ran to the passenger side to try to reach the driver.
That's when he encountered Harry the black lab, who was wearing a bandana and looking him in the eye. "I screamed at him, 'Jump out,'" Wickline said, and Harry quickly obliged.
He feared the driver was dead, but he was determined to get him out of the burning vehicle.
The man's clothes were on fire and Wickline patted out the flames with his bare hands before pulling him to safety.
"I really didn't think I was saving his life. I really didn't want to see him burn."
But as he dragged Braley out of the car, the two fell to the ground together - and he saw Braley's chest rise and fall.
Braley, who turns 60 this month, said he fell asleep at the wheel that morning. He spent weeks in the hospital after the crash.
The left side of his skull was crushed; his jaw, left arm and several ribs were broken; and his liver and spleen were damaged.
"Everybody thought that I wasn't going to make it," he said.
Harry escaped with just a burn to the tip of his black nose - and a new apprehension about driving. "It took him a long time to jump in the car again," said Braley.
Braley, an ex-paratrooper who served with the 82nd Airborne, has a message to deliver: "Thanks, Earl. I love you. You saved my life."
The Union Leader Hero Awards honor New Hampshire residents who have risked their lives in the previous year to save or attempt to save the life of another person. The program is sponsored by Citizens Bank and presented by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Recipients of the 2014 Union Leader Hero Awards will be honored at a ceremony at the State House on Tuesday at 3 p.m. The event is free to the public, but an RSVP is requested.
For more information, contact Community Relations Manager Shannon Sullivan at 206-7833 or email@example.com.