Sharon Peppernick was driving home in a steady rain on June 10, after a full day of work as a physical therapy assistant at WellSpan Chambersburg Hospital.
Peppernick was getting ready to head up over the Timmons Mountain, north of Chambersburg in Franklin County, when she saw a small group of cars pulled off the road, with their four-way lights flashing.
And then Peppernick saw something else off the road, barely visible in the trees and falling rain, that made her immediately turn her car around.
“It looked like a vehicle,” she said. “It looked like it was smoking or steaming.”
As she headed back to the scene, Peppernick coincidentally encountered her 18-year-old son, Matthew, who also was on his way home from work and who also immediately turned around when he saw the commotion. Mom and son parked, got out and heard yelling from nearby. They looked down over an embankment next to the road and saw a SUV, which had rolled down into the woods and was lying on its roof.
Jumping into action
Several people were frantically helping to pull a man from the vehicle, was starting to smolder with flames. The Peppernicks ran down the embankment and joined the effort.
“We just needed him to get him away from the vehicle,” Peppernick said. “It was on fire, but it was just starting. By the time we got him moved away – it seemed like forever, but it probably wasn’t – the car was fully engulfed in fire.”
Connie McGill, a paramedic with Shippensburg EMS, had arrived at the accident scene by this point. She could not believe what she saw next, just as the helpers got the man moved a short distance from the SUV.
“The car just started exploding,” she said. “That group – God love them – not one of them even batted an eye. Little boulders were rolling down the hill. The car was exploding and exploding. They were only 20 or 30 feet away.”
It was an unnerving experience, Peppernick said.
“I said, ‘I hope to God there’s not a gun in that thing. We’re a little close,’ “ she recalled. “You could feel the heat of the flames. It was not that far.”
McGill has been a paramedic for 20 years and she said the accident is one of the calls “that’s going to stick with me.”
“That was probably one of the most dramatic things I’ve seen, where there was fire and explosions,” she said. “But I kid you not when I tell you that not one of those people even moved. Nobody was going to leave that man.”
Acting as a calming presence
Peppernick said the group was trying to figure out if anyone else was in the man’s vehicle at this point (they learned later that the accident victim was alone). The group – at this point consisting of an Army reservist in his fatigues, an off-duty emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighters who quickly arrived – began to work to get the man moved down off the muddy, very steep, rocky hill, to help that was now waiting below.
McGill sent up a stretcher up the hill. Peppernick ran and got blankets from another bystander and returned to the man with them.
“Other people had come and were helping, people stronger than myself,” Peppernick said. “The terrain was very rough.”
The man, who was elderly and had blood coming from his knees and face, was confused but talking vaguely. As she leaned in to comfort him, Peppernick realized, to her great surprise, that she knew him. The man formerly owned a bar and restaurant in the area, where she had worked earlier in her life.
McGill said Peppernick was the reassuring presence for the man.
“She kept saying, ‘It’s OK. We’re with you. You’ll be fine,’ “ said McGill, who waited below for the volunteers to bring the man down the hill. “She was holding his hand and trying to comfort him.”
Peppernick said her son and other people at the scene ended up moving the man down the hill. The terrain was so craggy, slippery and sloping that others stood below the people moving the stretcher, holding onto their legs to help them stay upright.
The Peppernicks waited until emergency crews could verify that no one else was in the man’s vehicle and then headed home, muddy, wet and exhausted. The 84-year-old accident victim was airlifted to Penn State Holy Spirit Medical Center, according to the Shippensburg Chronicle. No details were available on his condition, the Chronicle said.
Doing what should be done
“We were stunned. Numb,” Peppernick said, noting that her other son was shocked when he saw them come in the door. “He said, ‘What happened?!’ “
Peppernick said she doesn’t deserve any special recognition and that the man’s rescue was a group effort. She said she and her son didn’t think about jumping in to help, doing what they hope others would do if they ever needed help.
McGill has a different take.
“Those people are heroes,” she said. “That man would be dead if they hadn’t pulled him out of the car. There’s no doubt.”