As smoke intensified from the upside-down car in the middle of the northern Minnesota highway — and as bystanders did little for the driver trapped inside — vacationing fisherman Bill Glad and his friends took on the burning vehicle, sparing a stranger a most horrific death.
The 57-year-old Glad grabbed a glass-breaking hammer from his vehicle and smashed the car's windows as it burned on Hwy. 169 east of Tower. His two thirty-something sons and others crawled in amid the flames and pulled the driver out the back window into the ditch, to safety.
Carlo Theisen was taken by ambulance Thursday morning about 10 miles to the Tower airport. Theisen then went by helicopter to St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. He was listed in serious condition Friday, one day closer to his 44th birthday on Sunday.
Sylvester Theisen said his son, who lives in St. Joseph, Minn., will survive the crash but described him as being "in pretty bad shape" with "tremendous burns on both legs" and a crushed vertebra that will keep him in the hospital for at least 30 days.
"One or two more minutes and he would've burned alive," said Glad, of Hibbing, whose fishing party came upon the drama about 8:30 a.m. as the guys made their annual caravan to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
'We're those type of guys'
For Glad, sons Tim and Gary, and their fishing buddies, there was no hesitation to "do what you can do" for a stranger in peril.
"It was dangerous, but our fishing group, we're those type of guys," Glad said Friday during a break from pulling large walleye from the waters near Ely.
Glad said his party was not the first to come upon the scene.
"People were looking in there and said, 'Yes, there was a person inside,' " he recalled.
But they either didn't know how to get the driver out or were unwilling to try, he said.
So the Glad gang sprang into action, starting with a hammer to bust the windows, giving Theisen a path to survival.
When Glad got to the driver, his legs were tangled in the melting steering column, the rest of him strapped in his seat belt and deployed air bags filling much of the passenger compartment.
"We had to cut the air bags to get to the guy," Glad said. "The flames were really going."
Once Theisen was away from the hot, smoking wreckage and in the ditch, the rescuers knew better than to pull the pants from his legs and further damage the skin. Instead, "we covered him with towels and poured water on him" before emergency personnel took over, Glad said.
Lifesaving Christmas gift
That window-bashing hammer almost didn't make it on the trip, Glad said. As he packed the night before, his girlfriend encouraged him to take it along — just in case.
"It just came into my mind," said Sandy Ongaro. " 'Do you have that little glass breaker that my daughter gave you for Christmas a few years ago?' " she recalled saying to him. " 'Do me a favor and put that in the side door pocket. Just do me that favor.' "
Glad doubted he really needed to have it along. It's more commonly a must for ice fishing, should the shanty break through. But he tromped out to the garage just the same, found the hammer and packed it for the trip.
Sylvester Theisen, who also lives in St. Joseph, said his son had been staying at the family cabin in nearby Ely for the past 10 days, taking a break from his work in St. Cloud at a hotel and a restaurant.
"He just went off the road, and we don't know why," the father said. "He's a very careful driver."
The father said he and his wife feel "fortunate somebody rescued him. We certainly want to thank them."