Trooper Stephen Paulus is on the state police explosives team, and yet, he'll tell you nothing in all of his training prepared him for what happened on a routine commute across the Causeway.
Paulus saved a life after a crash on the bridge in February.
“I knew walking up there that this was probably going to hurt,” he said. “You have to be prepared for that.”
A truck stalled on the Causeway and was rear-ended at a high rate of speed, catching on fire with two dazed and injured women in the front seat. Shane Ward saw it from his car and stopped behind the trooper.
“It was literally a wall of smoke in the right-hand lane,” Ward recalls.
Ward said Trooper Paulus walked right up to the fiery truck, never stopping to put on his protective gear; there wasn't time.
“I knocked on the window and said, ‘Hey, truck’s on fire, we gotta go!’” recalled Paulus.
With flames an arm’s length away, he tried to open the door, but it was jammed. He tried again and again and then the driver tried from the inside. No luck.
“I will say I will never forget the look that driver gave me after I tried to open the door several times and she tried to open the door,” Paulus said.
What happened next would be the stuff of legend if a witness hadn't seen it for himself. Trooper Paulus pulled the door off the hinges.
“I was able to pull the top and the side of the door frame and pry the door loose and I went ahead and bent it all the way back,” he said.
Ward was there as the driver was pulled out, but the ordeal was far from over.
“He's yelling to me, go take her far away on the other side of the lane,” said Ward. “I look over my shoulder and he's going again into the smoke.”
The passenger was dazed and hadn't moved so Trooper Paulus went back into the truck yet again as the flames grew even closer, and the smoke thicker.
“She just sat and looked at me and I guess that would be the third time I grabbed her and that’s when we got her out,” Paulus said.
It happened just in time.
“Within another two minutes the whole vehicle was engulfed in flames,” said Ward. “It was nothing short of the being the most heroic thing I've seen in several years since being in the military.”
For that, Trooper Paulus just earned the Carnegie Award for Heroism. Only nineteen other Americans have received it, three of them posthumously after having died during their rescues.
“To be considered for something that prestigious, it's very humbling,” said Paulus.
Both women who were rescued survived and recovered. We tracked down the driver but her attorney didn’t want her to be interviewed given an ongoing lawsuit related to the crash. However, he did assure us she is immeasurably grateful to Trooper Paulus.
As for the trooper, he insists he was only doing his job that day. Still, it made such a strong impact he relives it every day at precisely the same point, a mile marker that became a milestone in his life and those of the women he saved.
“I think about them every day when I cross that Causeway, I can promise you that,” Paulus said.
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