Mark Read and his son were amazed at the thick black smoke rising from the chain-reaction crash on Interstate 435 when, as they were passing, Read realized someone was still in one of the vehicles.
A burning man was trying to get out of his car.
Instinctively, Read stopped his car on the shoulder and told 13-year-old Robert to stay put while he ran to do what he could to help. The fire was growing.
“He wiggled out of the window, and he was on fire,” Read said Tuesday. “The immediate task was to move him away from the heat, which was crazy intense. The aluminum frames of the vehicles were melting. And then there were these mini-explosions going off in the tractor-trailer.”
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A highway construction worker also rushed over, and he and Read used their shirts to try to beat out the flames on the stricken man.
“I am aware of the concept, but it is an entirely different thing to actually see a live human being engulfed in flames.”
Read could not even guess how old the man was.
“He did not have shoes on,” Read said. “His shirt, I believe, had melted or burned off, so all he had on were trouser pants, and they were on fire. His skin was on fire. His face. His hair. The whole deal.”
A handful of other people began helping move the burned man 75 to 100 feet away from the wreckage. Read protested when the rescuers placed the man on the highway, the surface of which on the hot day was burning him worse.
The injured man, whose name has not been released, was rushed by ambulance to Overland Park Regional Medical Center in critical condition. He was transferred to the Grossman Burn Center at Research Medical Center, where he remained Tuesday in critical condition.
The crash occurred at 5:19 p.m. — rush hour — in the eastbound lanes in the midst of a massive repavement project on the highway. Five vehicles were involved, including two trucks and three passenger vehicles. They were all in flames.
Read and his son had been traveling east but in an open lane separated from the wreckage by Jersey barriers. The two could see the deep black smoke ahead and were speculating whether that meant a tire fire. It turned out to be much worse.
Soon emergency vehicles began arriving in the tight space. A Johnson County Med-Act ambulance took the man away.
Read saw a second burned man being tended to in the back of a construction pickup truck. That man also was taken to Overland Park Regional, where he was treated and released.
Read was uninjured but on Tuesday, his shoulder and back felt like he had been sunburned.
Read works with the MainStream Coalition advocating for public education and health care. He said he has never been in a situation anything like the one he found himself in Monday afternoon.
“I don’t feel like I did anything out of the norm,” he said. “I was in the right place at the right time, and many other people helped.
“I’m glad no one died in the fire. If you’ve seen the pictures of the vehicles, it could easily have happened.
“This guy has a tough road ahead of him, but he is alive.”