What makes some people act heroically in emergencies while others stand by, doing nothing?
That question still baffles social scientists. But two Georgia College first-year students didn’t stop to think about it the morning they helped pull a young man from smoldering wreckage.
“When we first came up, and it was on fire, I thought ‘I’m not going to go near a burning car,’ because I’ve seen videos and, when they explode, it’s huge,” said John “Max” Merritt, a business management major from Perry who lives in Napier Hall.
“I honestly thought he was dead – the way the car looked and everything. And then, when he made a noise, it was just instinct from there,” Merritt said.
It was 3 a.m. Nov. 10. Merritt was with his friend William “Hunter” Giles, an economics major from Roswell who lives in Parkhurst Hall. They’d just finished typing papers and were sitting on the porch at Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, when a gray sedan raced by on Columbia Street at what Merritt estimated to be 100 mph.
The car hit the curb at West Greene Street, rolling over and over until it slammed into a corner of the reflection pool and skidded on its roof into the clock tower in front of Napier Hall.
Video from security cameras shows the accident happening in a matter of seconds. The car was banged up with billowing smoke and gasoline pouring from the engine.
Merritt and Giles heard the noise from their fraternity and knew something had gone terribly wrong. They jumped into a truck and sped to the scene. Security videos show them running past the tower into Napier and reappearing with a fire extinguisher. They sprayed the car and were walking away when the driver tried to crawl out through a window. The students helped pull him free, and the man walked on his own - confused but apparently not hurt beyond bumps and bruises.
The rescue took less than 3 minutes.
By then, police from Milledgeville, Georgia College and the State Patrol had arrived. More than a dozen students also gathered to watch and record the scene on cell phones.
“There’s no telling what would’ve happened, if those flames had gotten any bigger or the wind kicked up or just caught even a spark from the gasoline that was pouring out,” Merritt said.
The gasoline worried Giles too. But when he saw the driver trying to crawl out, he didn’t hesitate either.
“It just happened so fast, I didn’t really comprehend what was happening,” Giles said. “If you have the chance to do something, and you don’t take that chance and something bad happens, you’d regret it for all your life. That’s something I couldn’t live with.”
After the rescue, the students were tired, relieved and a little stunned. Merritt said his parents couldn’t believe he’d gone near a burning car.
“It really is scary. It could’ve turned from a little flame to a full explosion in seconds. It’s just one of those things that doesn’t cross your mind until it’s happening,” he said.
News spread fast. Classmates and high school friends from other colleges texted Giles and Merritt to see if they were okay.
Georgia College President Steve Dorman learned of their bravery as well. He viewed security videos, showing Merritt and Giles taking action while others stood back.
“I just wanted to write you a note and tell you how proud I am of your quick thinking and courage,” Dorman wrote the two students last week. “You are to be commended for taking action to help someone and perhaps even save his life. Thanks for being a great representative of the Bobcat community.”