Firefighting brothers John and Joel Rechlitz are somewhat the worse for wear after their amazing rescue of a Tennessee boy trapped in a hell on earth — but they are happy and modest to bear the bandaged wounds of heroes.
The off-duty Milwaukee firemen were preparing for a family birthday Sunday when John’s wife Joy called him in a frantic state — just four blocks away, an SUV had flipped over and burst into flames, trapping a mother and her two young children inside.
The Rechlitz brothers arrived on the scene within moments to find a group of good Samaritans already at work, struggling to free the family from the blazing vehicle — but it took guts and a combined 29 years of firefighting experience to save the life of the 4-year-old boy trapped inside by his car seat.
One free, one still inside
John and Joel Rechlitz appeared live via satellite on TODAY Monday, recounting their efforts to free a boy who was literally burning to death in front of their eyes — a rescue that was captured in graphic video by bystander Jerry Lepkowski as his nephew Jason joined in on the frantic rescue bid.
Joel Rechlitz told TODAY’s Lester Holt that the mother — who had come to town to work a booth at the local county fair and had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel — had already managed to hand off her 2-year-old to Joel’s wife when the brothers arrived on the scene. Joel and John managed to smash out what was left of the front windshield and free the mother as well. But they were shocked to see the 4-year-old boy still lodged firmly in his car seat.
“It was horrific,” Joel Rechlitz told Holt. “The car was engulfed in flames and the child was in there screaming. All I could see was that child’s face, [which] seemed just perfectly fine, but you could see the car seat around the child was burning. The child was literally burning in front of me.
“It was horrific,” he reiterated. “It compelled you to act.”
Burned but helping hands
Joel and John took turns trying to wrest the child free from his seat restraint, both burning their hands badly in the process. John Rechlitz cursed his luck for not having a knife on him when every second was a matter of life or death.
“We tried looking for the seat belt release and we couldn’t find it in the mess, and that’s when I came out,” John said. “I’m screaming for somebody to hopefully have something in their pocket for me — I normally carry a pocketknife, but at the time I didn’t, and for me that was extremely frustrating.”
Joel ran to his car and retrieved a knife and John was able to cut the boy loose. Another quick-thinking neighbor had a garden hose at the ready to douse the boy in cold water to stop the burning.
Civilian rescuer Jason Lepkowski told NBC affiliate WTNJ: “[The boy] got burned pretty bad — when he got out, he was on fire. We did a good job, and thank God for the firefighters there.”
The Rechlitz brothers appeared on TODAY with heavily bandaged hands as the result of touching melting metal during their rescue ordeal — but still wore smiles as well as bandages, knowing they had likely saved the boy’s life. The boy, whose identity is being withheld, suffered burns over 30 percent of his bodyand required surgery. He was listed in critical condition on Monday morning. Still, the brothers were told he is likely to recover.
Joel Rechlitz sloughed off the brothers’ own injuries. “We’ll be OK; we’re hanging in there,” he told Holt.
Milwaukee Police Lt. Mark Wroblewski praised the efforts of both the Rechlitz brothers and the local citizens for turning what could have been an unspeakable tragedy into a near-miss for the family involved.
“It just shows the true spirit of this city [Milwaukee],” Wroblewski said. “Everybody’s willing to help.”