“I tried everything,” Jim Stebbins said, the day after he tried saving a mother and baby from a fiery crash. “There just wasn’t enough time.”
The woman and her 10-month-old son died at the scene in Egg Harbor Township in a fire Stebbins described as “fast and violent.” The investigation is ongoing.
“Emotionally, I’m crushed,” said Stebbins, a father of four who was heading home at about 12:15 p.m., when the crash happened. “Worst day of my life.”
The 37-year-old township man had just turned onto English Creek Avenue heading north behind a Cadillac when he saw the driver — identified as Nancy Cavanaugh, 66, of the township — cross the lane and crash into a Kia Soul, which overturned and caught fire.
Stebbins sped up to get as close as he could and rushed to the woman in the driver’s seat.
Just behind him was Jerry Fournier.
But as much as they tried, they couldn’t get the door to open or a window to break.
“Just get the baby,” the woman said. “Just get the baby.”
Stebbins — who said he hadn’t known there was a baby inside — rushed to the back.
The fire was growing bigger, so Stebbins took a deep breath and dove in.
“I tried to feel for the straps,” he said.
But the little boy was buckled tight in his safety seat. Stebbins tried to take another breath, inhaling heat and soot. He began coughing and pulled out to get fresh air.
When he went back in, “it was a super-heated oven,” he recalled.
Fire had swept over the vehicle. He was thrown back and to the ground, and then heard an explosion.
“It was fully engulfed,” he said. “I couldn’t get close.”
“We tried everything we could to get the woman driver and the baby out,” Fournier said in a Facebook post that described the events as something that “changed my life.” “We were talking with her till the end, but couldn’t rescue.”
Stebbins, who has asthma and carries an inhaler at all times, was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
“The ambulance driver said my airways were clogged up pretty bad,” he said.
He had a scorched throat, burned off his nose and arm hair, and lost some hair on head, which he shaved after being released Wednesday.
Stebbins and Fournier then met with the victims’ family, who reached out after a Facebook post by Stebbins’ brother captured lots of attention.
Police are withholding the names pending the completion of the medical examiner’s investigation.
“They weren’t alone,” Stebbins told the woman and baby’s loved ones.
He let them know that the mother “was calm until the end and worried only about the baby.”
Stebbins is the maintenance manager at Woodbine Elementary School.
“You never think that one minute you’ll be heading home from work, and the next you’ll be on top of a burning car trying to bust a window out,” he said. “That’s what happened to me.”