The voice still echoes inside James Murray’s head, a desperate plea for help.
“Get me out, don’t let me burn,” he heard Donald Fox groan, moments after the man crashed head-on into an oak tree, igniting the front of his pickup truck into flames. “Please, don’t let me burn.”
His body leaning on the bench seat toward the passenger side door, Mr. Fox couldn’t move. Mr. Murray struggled to rip open the door. The flames continued to spark and smoke began billowing toward the sky.
As he finally pried open the door, he reached in to pull the 52-year-old Speonk man to safety.
Then reality set in.
He couldn’t do it alone. He needed help.
On what began as a typically quiet Sunday afternoon, April 1, Mr. Murray was raking leaves in front of his house on Peconic Bay Boulevard in Laurel, the only home he’s ever known. His 86-year-old father, also named James, relaxed nearby, enjoying the early spring weather. For the past two decades James Sr. has lived with Parkinson’s disease, which may have robbed him of some of his movement, but never his desire to help.
The younger Mr. Murray, a 53-year-old self-employed electrician, attended the tiny Laurel School as a kid.
“I’m a local yokel,” he said, smiling, ever-so-proud to call the North Fork home.
He owns a small marina across the street from his house, where he rents slips on a narrow inlet that leads out to Peconic Bay. It was there that an act of heroism by his father nearly 58 years earlier saved a man from certain death.
Almost six decades later, it all came full circle when Mr. Murray heard a “big, hollow crash.” The noise was startling. He looked up and couldn’t immediately tell what had happened.
As he got closer he could see over the bushes that a red 1987 Dodge pickup truck had smashed into a tree. It was the same tree a boat had collided with more than 30 years earlier after the car trailering it sped too fast across the small bridge, hit a notorious bump and swerved out of control.
Mr. Murray grabbed a cellphone from his back pocket and dialed 911. He sprinted toward the truck, phone in his hand, relaying information as quickly as possible.
Within seconds, Southold police and the Mattituck Fire Department were responding.
But it still wasn’t going to be fast enough for Mr. Fox. By the time the first rescuers could arrive, it would have been too late.
It took only 30 seconds for the front of the truck to become engulfed in flames, Mr. Murray said.
If the victim had been any ordinary man, Mr. Murray likely would have had little trouble pulling him from the car as the adrenaline rushed through his body. But Mr. Fox is no ordinary man.
Weighing close to 400 pounds, Mr. Fox “had hands like baseball gloves,” Mr. Murray said.
“I couldn’t get him out by myself,” he added. “The guy was that big.”
Help arrived quickly, but before it did, Mr. Murray faced another problem. His father came strolling down the driveway with his walker, thinking he could help.
“I’m screaming for him to get back,” Mr. Murray said. “He’s tough.”
Neighbor Jack Brown, who is 75 and broke his hip last year, rushed from his nearby home to assist in the rescue. Another man on a bike, whom Mr. Murray didn’t know, also helped. There may have even been a fourth person, Mr. Murray said, but it all happened so quickly, he didn’t remember.
Together, they needed only a few seconds to pull Mr. Fox from the truck.
“We dragged him fast because the flames were already coming through the fire wall,” Mr. Murray said. “We had to be pretty quick about it.”
About 10 seconds after they pulled him free, the truck exploded like a scene out of a movie.
People who didn’t hear the initial crash came running to see what happened.
Mr. Murray estimated they were 30 or 40 feet from the truck when it exploded. At that point, the first police officer arrived. The officer pulled out a blanket, which they used to carry Mr. Fox farther from the fire.
Soon after, the truck exploded again.
Thick smoke blanketed the air, shielding Mr. Murray’s entire house from view. The truck had hit the tree so hard that its engine cracked and the steering column and steering wheel were both bent.
As he worked to free Mr. Fox, Mr. Murray never thought about the potential danger.
“You have no time to think,” he said. “I never considered the danger. I just did what anybody would do.”
Mr. Fox, who was less than a mile from his destination on Delmar Drive, was black and blue from his neck to his navel when the paramedics began to work on him, Mr. Murray said.
“It’s just lucky it didn’t happen in the middle of the night because he would have died,” Mr. Murray said.
The next day, a woman Mr. Fox was heading to see stopped by to take pictures. She filled Mr. Murray in on his injuries, which included a broken leg, broken pelvis, broken ribs and a ruptured spleen.
For the past 13 years Mr. Fox would stop in at Lenny’s Pizza in Jamesport, where his larger-than-life personality always brightened the day. Owner Lenny Lubrano said he’s known Mr. Fox for more than 20 years, dating back to when he worked at a restaurant in Mattituck.
Mr. Fox had given up riding motorcycles in recent years, but was still a biker at heart, Mr. Lubrano said.
“He wears the Harley bandana,” he said. “A big, big man, but a teddy bear. The guy’s got a heart of gold. I’ve seen him in the carnival, filled with stuffed animals, giving them to little children. A real sweet man.”
To his friends, he’s known as “Don Don.”
“His appearance is definitely not who he is,” said Jimmy Hinchy, who works at Lenny’s and has known Mr. Fox for more than 30 years. “He’s a great man.”
Mr. Fox has worked as a payload operator at Danny’s Cesspool in Riverhead for about seven years. His boss, Danny Watts, called Mr. Fox his “right arm.”
“He’s like a brother to me,” Mr. Watts said.
While Mr. Fox suffered serious injuries, his friends have heard that he probably will be OK. A family member who contacted the News-Review Thursday morning said Mr. Fox is still in a medical coma with several fractures.
“We, the family of Donald Fox, would like to say thank you to the heroes that pulled him out of his truck,” Sylvia Oliver wrote to the News-Review. “Without those heroes, he would’t be here today.”
If you want a hero, Mr. Murray says, just look at Dad.
A World War II Army veteran who fought in the Philippine jungles, James Sr. twice saved the life of a stranger. His son still has a picture of his dad on a ship sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on his way to the Philippines. His dad can still hear the big band classic “Sentimental Journey” playing in the background as they departed.
On May 10, 1954, James Sr. sat in his Laurel house watching TV on a rainy night when he saw a flash through his venetian blinds. He walked outside but didn’t immediately see anything. As he got closer to the bay, he suddenly spotted a shadow floating in the sky. A parachute, slowly dropping a pilot back to earth.
Moments earlier, 2nd Lt. Charles Beardsley had lost control of his F-86D sabrejet after taking off from the Westhampton Beach Air Force base. He ejected from the plane, which crashed in Mattituck with 24 live rockets, according to Newsday archives. Five days after the crash, the Air Force was still looking for six of the rockets. Mr. Murray said they never found the engine.
James Sr. could hear the sirens going off in the distance. He ran back to his house, dragged his 14-foot wooden rowboat with a 5 hp engine down to the water and sailed into a sheet of black.
“I had all of Peconic Bay to look for him,” James Sr. recalled.
After about an hour, he miraculously stumbled across the pilot. He dragged him aboard as the boat began filling with water. “I didn’t have time to bail the boat,” James Sr. said.
“By the time I got to him he was so cold he couldn’t talk,” he added.
He headed back to shore, but the darkness made it a challenge just to find the creek. When he finally made it back to shore, he carried the pilot, who weighed about 175 pounds, into his house.
Two weeks later, the 519th Air Defense Group presented James Sr. with a plaque in appreciation of his heroic effort.
“It is a great comfort to all the pilots of this base to know that there are such men as you in the community, standing by when we of the Air Force need you,” Lt. Col. Edward Stealy wrote.
In September 1979, while working for LILCO, James Sr. saved an 11-year-old boy after a 100-pound St. Bernard attacked him, ripping his scalp off. James Sr. heard the screams, raced over and scaled a fence to reach the vicious dog. He pulled the dog off the boy and hurled it over the fence.
The Long Island Federation of Labor presented James Sr. with an Outstanding Service Award, “In recognition of your heroic deed which was rendered without thought of gain or glory.”
Thirty-three years later, it was his son’s turn to be the hero.
“It runs in the family,” James Sr. said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever catch up to him,” Mr. Murray added.