"You're on fire! Get out! Get out!”
“Where am I?” Tom Ellwood thought to himself as he came to. His car was high off the ground, wedged between two trees in a valley. The front end of his car was pointing downward with the driver's side facing the sky. What was left of the airbag hung limply across his steering wheel. He could smell smoke and hear the warning voice but he couldn't free himself from his seat belt.
“God, am I going to die here?”
That morning was just another day at the office for the lifelong member of The Salvation Army. As an inspector of independent schools for the British Columbia Ministry of Education, the retired teacher flew to remote areas or travelled by car to out-of-the-way schools to monitor compliance among more than 450 independent, religious and First Nations schools. Ellwood's “office” was usually a fold-down airplane tray or a car dashboard.
On this May day in 2012, Ellwood flew to Terrace, B.C., got up early and drove the six hours to the little town of Iskut to conduct an inspection of the First Nations school there. He was on his way back to Terrace that afternoon to catch a plane home.
Traffic was light and Ellwood occasionally stopped by the side of the road to take photos of the black and grizzly bears ambling along the highway.
Ellwood had learned to take frequent breaks on long drives and was looking for a place to pull over when something—a bear or large animal—dashed in front of the car. Ellwood instinctively swerved and the car shot off the road.
“According to the RCMP, I went over a 25-metre cliff,” says Ellwood.
“Despite my lack of pilot training,” he laughs, “my car executed a perfect half-roll and lodged between two trees 10 metres off the ground.”
A groggy Ellwood awoke to frantic shouts: “You're on fire, you're on fire! Get out! Get out!”
“That woke me up, fast,” he says. “I looked around. The airbag had deployed, the steering wheel was broken, the car was an absolute mess, and that voice was right: There were flames at my feet!”
Trapped by his seat belt, Ellwood had the presence of mind to hit the seat lever, the seat went flat and he was free.
In pain, he tried to shimmy down the tree but lost his grip and fell.
“My fall was broken by the Good Samaritan whose voice I'd heard,” continues Ellwood. “The man had been bicycling to a baseball game when he saw the smoke. Dialing 911 on his cellphone, he'd scrambled down into the dense bush, yelling at me up in the car all the while.”
Grabbing the exhausted Ellwood, he pulled him to safety, saying, “We've got to get out of here, it's going to come down and blow up.”
“I was battered and couldn't move another step,” Ellwood says. “I told him to leave me but he refused and started to drag me away. This stranger was risking his own life to save me.”
And a good thing, too. Burning out of control, Ellwood's car crashed to the ground, right where he had been minutes before.
“I Owe My Life to Him”
Alerted by the 911 call, the local fire chief from the nearby village of Kitwanga and some volunteer first responders swiftly descended on the scene. By the time the RCMP arrived, there were more than 30 cars by the side of the road.
Hoisted out of the ravine on a stretcher, Ellwood was rushed to the hospital in New Hazelton, where along with the medical staff, two Salvation Army captains were there to meet him. From there, he was sent to the larger hospital in Prince Rupert.
“In Prince Rupert, I received excellent treatment,” says Ellwood. “The Salvation Army network had already kicked in and the local corps sergeant-major arrived to pray with me. I found out later that word of my misfortune spread like wildfire within the Army and prayer chains had sprang into action on my behalf. God answers prayer!”
After two days in Prince Rupert, Ellwood was flown to Victoria General Hospital, blocks from his home. He had a broken sternum, punctured ribs and a collapsed lung. Months of recuperation have followed.
“But I'm on the road to recovery,” smiles Ellwood.
He is fully aware of the second chance he's been given. “I should have died twice, once in the crash and the other when the car blew up. I'm 77, so God must have some other plans for me,” he says.
“An accident such as this changes you,” he continues. “You realize that life is precious and can be taken away in the twinkling of an eye. I intend to use the time I have been given well.
“I found out that the name of the man who saved me is Vincent Daniels, but despite my repeated calls, I have never been able to speak to him in person and thank him for saving my life,” Ellwood goes on to say. “I've written to the Governor General asking that he be recognized for what he did but if Vincent reads this, I hope he knows I owe my life to him.”