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Off-Duty Pilot Stops to Save Man Engulfed in Flames

The Oregonian

May 25, 2011

John Filipowicz caught a glimpse of fire as he drove through Portland shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday, only a moment before the worst thing imaginable dawned on him.

He saw the flames move and drop to the ground. Someone was on fire.

Filipowicz slammed on the brakes, jumped from his 1960 GMC pickup, bolted over a guardrail, down a steep embankment and across railroad tracks, reaching a man trapped in a burning sleeping bag.

He tried to roll the man over to extinguish the fire, but the victim, crying and moaning, wouldn’t or couldn’t budge. Filipowicz pulled a portion of the bag that wasn’t burning over the man’s head, smothering the flames up top before ripping the bag away from the man’s torso and legs.

His skin still smoldered.

Filipowicz’s cellphone was in the pickup, where he also kept a fire extinguisher. He ran for them and when he returned, emptied the fire extinguisher onto the burning man.

Finally, another driver stopped. Hearing Filipowicz hollering “Call 9-1-1,” the driver did.

Filipowicz leaned over the man and asked his name.

“Marcus,” the man replied.

“I told him he’d be alright,” Filipowicz said. “I told him that I’d been burned and know how it feels. I said, ‘Hang on. The fire department’s coming.’”

When he spotted the fire, Filipowicz, 55, was near the end of his long commute from Gold Hill, north of Medford, to his sister’s place in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood. He planned to spend the night there before heading to Portland International Airport early Monday. A captain for Alaska Airlines, he had a Los Angeles-bound flight due to push away from the gate before 7 a.m.

He recounted the events during a telephone interview from his Seattle hotel room after his workday ended Monday afternoon.

Flames licked up under the Northeast 42nd Avenue overpass, near Lombard Street. The Portland Fire Bureau, which dispatched two trucks, reported that the victim was a transient in his 50s. The man, whose name has not been released and whose condition is unknown, was trying to keep warm near a campfire when flames ignited his sleeping bag.

Filipowicz, a former U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot, who has flown for Alaska for 20 years, has precisely the training emergencies require.

“Pilots compartmentalize,” he said, “so you can deal with the problem.”

In his 24 years with the Coast Guard — 10 on active duty and 14 in the reserves — he responded to every sort of trouble, drownings, severe injuries, heart attacks. He flew medevac missions, lifting those in need from submarines and other vessels.

In 1981, he was traveling from Midway atoll to Honolulu aboard a fishing boat the Coast Guard had seized, when a big, rolling wave pitched the boat and sent boiling water spilling across his right thigh, melting off the skin. Too far out to sea to get emergency transport, Filipowicz had to wait days to see a doctor.

None of it, he said, compared with the horror of rushing to the aid of a man in flames.

“You always wonder how you’ll react,” he said. “I knew what to do.”

The first Portland fire crew to arrive at the scene Sunday understood the priority wasn’t the flames still burning under the overpass. Firefighters had to tend to victim, who appeared in excruciating pain.

Burns covered much of his body. Heavy boots kept the flames from his feet, Filipowicz said, but that was about all.

A woman firefighter held an extinguisher toward Filipowicz and asked if he knew how to use it. “Yes,” he answered.

She asked him to douse the out-of-control campfire and he did.

Firefighters hooked the victim to oxygen and an intravenous drip, placed him on a backboard and into a metal basket. They rigged up a rope-and-crane system using an extended ladder — the only way to lift him up the steep embankment.

An ambulance transported him to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, home to the Oregon Burn Center; privacy laws prevented the hospital from divulging the patient’s condition.

Back on the road, Filipowicz sucked up some of the fire department’s oxygen, too. He’d inhaled more than his share of smoke tending to the victim and fighting the fire.

That night, laundry topped his agenda. He had to get the smoke and grit out of his airline uniform before climbing into a jet’s cockpit the next morning.

He prayed, he said, for the burn victim, who remained conscious through the ordeal.

“I feel very badly for him,” Filipowicz said, “for the pain he’s suffering and the life that lead him to that point —getting warm behind an overpass in Portland, Oregon.”

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