Good Samaritan pulls man from burning vehicle on I-35W

Moments before rescue, trapped man thought he would die.

When Minnesota State Trooper Zachary Hill got to the scene of a vehicle fire Sunday and heard that a man had rescued another motorist from the burning SUV, he “just assumed” the good Samaritan had opened the door.

Then Hill got a look at the door.

“He bent the door in half,” the astonished trooper said Monday. “I don’t think I could take a crowbar and fold the door like he did,” Hill said, adding that the feat took “superhuman strength.”

But the quick-acting motorist who pulled Michael Johannes, of Minneapolis, to safety along Interstate 35W in New Brighton Sunday said he has no idea how it all happened. He’s just glad he could help.

“I don’t know,” said Bob Renning, 52, when asked how he bent a steel door far enough to shatter the window and pull Johannes free. “I have no clue.”

The drama began around 6:30 p.m. Sunday when Renning, who was driving with his girlfriend, looked in his rearview mirror and saw a vehicle behind him on fire. Johannes, the driver, apparently did not know his SUV was burning, so Renning started slowing down in an attempt to get his attention.

Renning’s girlfriend rolled down her window to try to alert Johannes, too. But by then, Renning said it appeared Johannes’ vehicle had stopped working and pulled over to the freeway shoulder.

Renning stopped about 200 feet in front of Johannes. As his girlfriend called 911 and identified their location, Renning got out of his car.

He started to sprint when he saw flames and smoke “rolling around” the SUV. When he got to the SUV, the flames had intensified and the interior was filled with smoke. He couldn’t see anyone inside. He pulled on the door handle, but it wouldn’t open. Then he spotted Johannes frantically pounding and kicking against the passenger-side window.

Johannes couldn’t get the door open after the locks and power windows failed. Realizing he had to work fast, Renning gripped the top of the door frame with his fingertips, braced his foot against the door — and pulled. The door then bent in half and the glass shattered, the State Patrol said.

Renning, a member of the Air National Guard who lives in Woodbury, isn’t a body builder. He isn’t even especially fit, he admitted.

“I’m just a slightly overweight Air Force First Sergeant, for crying out loud,” he said with a chuckle.

Johannes, meanwhile, said Monday that he had no idea someone was outside the burning vehicle trying to rescue him. At the time, he said, he was holding his breath to keep from inhaling smoke and was almost certain he was going to die.

He said he had just started reaching into the back seat to grab a large flashlight to try to smash the glass windows when he heard a window shatter and saw hands reach in to pull him out.

“Thirty seconds later and I would have been done,” Johannes said. “It was a good thing I didn’t have my family in there.”

Johannes’ family had been at their cabin near Wyoming, Minn., for the weekend. His wife had headed for home earlier in her own vehicle. Their 7-year-old daughter had stayed behind with her grandparents for the holiday.

After pulling Johannes free, Renning helped calm him as they sat in a roadside ditch. Emergency responders arrived shortly thereafter. Paramedics treated Johannes for a cut to the side of his head and smoke inhalation. Renning was not injured.

Later, a state trooper took Johannes to a nearby Wal-Mart to wait for his wife. The couple returned to the cabin Sunday night.

  • related content

  • Minnesota State Patrol examine the charred vehicle on I-35W after a daring rescue by Renning, above left, who bent a door in half to save Johannes.

  • Bob Renning, of Woodbury, saved a man inside a burning car on I-35W.

  • Mike Johannes, after the rescue, is still sorting out his emotions.

  • The skeletal remains of a burnt car on I-35W, where a motorist was trapped before being rescued by a Woodbury man.

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