Brad Smith hardly had time to think.
All the 43-year-old Walnut Creek resident knew was that the crumpled vehicle by the side of the freeway was smoldering inside, and that he had a large fire extinguisher aboard his 10-wheel truck and he knew how to use it.
But tell him that he's a hero because he ran 100 yards with a 20-pound extinguisher, arriving just in time to put out a slowly rising fire inside the car and helping to save a 59-year-old woman inside it, and he will stop you.
"I'm nothing special," he said, speaking about Wednesday's accident. "I want everyone to know that."
Authorities from the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and California Highway Patrol said what occurred just past the Orinda Camino Pablo exit on Highway 24 on Wednesday afternoon was as special as it gets. The actions of Smith and others who stopped to lend a hand turned what Moraga-Orinda division Chief Darrell Lee called a potentially "terrible ending," into one with a much happier finish, at least for now.
The woman, who was extracted with hydraulic equipment after Smith put out flames that were present in the driver's compartment, was in critical but stable condition Thursday at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.
"They're heroes," Lee said Wednesday. "Heroes in every sense of the word."
Still, three of the helpful drivers who had a primary hand in early rescue efforts all said they were uncomfortable with any such notion. Instead, Smith, Tab Aryan Pure, of Walnut Creek, and Maria Connolly, of Lafayette, all said their actions were the result of a natural pull to do the right thing.
"You know, you really don't know how you're going to react until you're in that situation," said Aryan Pure, who drove by the accident just as the crumpled blue Volvo was coming to a rest. "I think what went through my body was that I saw a woman who was in trouble, and if that were my mother, or me, I wouldn't want her just left to burn up in there."
As he drove by the scene, the wreck was still so new that debris from the Volvo damaged parts of his own car. He was able to stop immediately, then instructed his 4-year-old son to remain in the car as he sprinted to the scene. Connolly already had arrived when he got there, and together, they tried to pry open the driver's side door. Thanks to what Aryan Pure called "pure adrenaline," they were able to bend open the bottom enough for other bystanders to toss in wet dirt to slow the flames.
Aryan Pure then sprinted back to his car to grab a small extinguisher, just as Smith, 54, was pulling his commercial garbage truck to a halt. He arrived at the car just as Aryan Pure had emptied his extinguisher and flames were starting to stoke again.
The garbage truck driver said he was meant to be there.
"I actually believe that. I really do, and I'm honestly not saying that in any way egotistically," Smith said. "But I believe I was supposed to be there, and I believe it was supposed to happen the way I did. I'm relishing the moment."
The intensity of the moment got to the rescuers.
"I got a bit freaked out when I got back to my car, and my son saw my face covered in white" from the fire extinguishers, "and started to cry," Aryan Pure said. "But really, there was no choice. You do what you have to do."
For Connolly, who was taking her 12-year-old son home from school, that meant simply keeping the woman inside the vehicle as calm as she could.
"I just tried to reassure her that help was coming," she said. "I stroked her hair, tried to reassure her as much as I could. But it wasn't just me. A lot of people were doing whatever was needed to help.
"So often, you hear about bad things that people are doing. To be part of something where people did something really good is just a really nice thing."