Heroes receive award for pulling man out of burning van at DFW

Amid flames and explosions, three strangers’ lives intertwined in a dramatic way in front of DFW Airport’s Terminal A when T.J. Griffin’s van caught fire and Walter Vaughn, a Freedom Park valet driver, and Kristy Dana Gish, who was arriving for a flight, rushed to T.J.’s aide about 6 a.m. March 29. T.J. is disabled from a football injury he received during his senior year at Trinity High School in Euless.

For their heroic actions, Kristy and Walter received Citizens Recognition Awards at the DFW Board of Directors meeting last week.

“Walter suffered some singeing of his hair and arms; Kristy received no injuries; they saved T.J.’s life,” said Alan Black, Vice President of Public Safety at DFW Airport. “The Department of Public Safety recognizes individuals inside and outside the department for those kinds of lifesaving efforts. We submitted these two individuals for Citizens Recognition Awards, and it was unanimously approved by our awards committee of firefighters, security personnel, and police officers who recognized that this is a behavior that deserves public recognition.”

Chief Bryan McKinney presented Certificates of Recognition to the pair who said they believe fate brought them all together.

T.J., a quadriplegic, is a mentor coordinator for the Christopher Reeve Foundation. He was returning from Seattle where he had been teaching others how to be mentors.

Kristy rarely travels, but she was going to meet her best friend for their annual vacation. She said everything went wrong that morning: the cab driver showed up late and took her to the wrong terminal. Because of the delays and mistakes, she was in the right place at the right time.

“I think there was a higher power at work,” Kristy said.

“I know so,” T.J. said.

As for Walter, he had called his supervisor to pick up another shift.

“I shouldn’t have been at the airport,” Walter said. “When I showed up, both my departures were delayed about 15 minutes, and then my arrival that was 5 o’clock was about three hours late. I was in the garage, and I heard a faint, “Help.” I turned in the direction of it, and I started to look, but it was dark outside. Eventually I was able to locate it.

“I looked over and saw a van, and I started to see some smoke and a little bit of flame in there, and I started sprinting toward the van. The closer I got to the van I realized the fire was moving extremely quickly…it was probably 40 feet. In just that short distance of the sprint, it was already halfway through the van. I got up to the door and I started to talk to T.J. I unlocked the door and opened it up, and that’s when I started to realize that T.J. had some sort of disability. That’s when we just started talking in general how we were going to get him out of the vehicle. At that point, the flames are moving a little further in the van.”

Walter said there was no screaming. They were just going through the scenarios step-by-step.

“I was already so many steps ahead mentally,” Walter said. “I’m focusing on trying to get him out but after seeing the fire, I realized we had to physically take him out of there.”

Because of T.J.’s disability, in order for him to drive, his wheelchair is locked down. T.J. was unable to make it release, and Walter could not find the release button.

“In hindsight, it is best he couldn’t find it because I would’ve backed up right into the flame,” T.J. said.

About that time, Kristy ran over and asked how she could help. Walter told her to call 9-1-1, and she ran to tell the cab driver to call. He was already “on it” he said.

“At one point, the image came in my mind: we’re going to have to step away, but it immediately disappeared, and I just went back to doing what I was doing,” Walter said.

“He was very calm,” T.J. said.

“I ran back over to help,” Kristy said. “I was just thinking, ‘Get him out!’ I think burning alive is a big fear of everybody. When I approached the van, the flames were rolling over T.J.’s head, so the van at that point was completely engulfed. The whole top half of Walter’s body was inside the van. He was trying to undo the seatbelt, and I heard him say ‘I can’t get it undone.’ Shortly after that, he said ‘I got it.”

The seatbelt then got tangled on a device on the steering wheel. Walter had to struggle to get it untangled.

“The seatbelt came flying back, so I grabbed (it), and Walter bear-hugged him and got him out of the vehicle,” Kristy said.

“Walter was hugging me and saying ‘What do I do now?’” T.J. said. “About that time, I felt the flame come over my ear, and it burned my ear. I look up, and I can see the flames over my head. I went into panic mode. Walter said ‘Here we go.’ Gravity helped, and we went to the ground. As soon as we got to the ground, Water got one arm, and Kristy got the other. They dragged me about 5 or 10 feet away from the van, and I’m so in shock I said, ‘Oh my God – my cell phone, and Walter looks for a second, and then says ‘No, we don’t need to get the cell phone. I think that’s the last of our concerns,’ and then we heard all the windows explode. They grab me and move me about 10 feet away. I could just see by the determination on Kristy’s and Walter’s faces that they were going to get me out.”

T.J. said that burning to death trapped in his car or home had been his biggest fear.

“I was getting myself prepared … and I said to myself ‘I hope I die of smoke inhalation before the flames get to me,’ and about that time, Walter came to the window, and I felt like I had a chance.”

Walter and Kristy managed to move T.J. behind a pillar before several more explosions rocked the van and damaged the front of Terminal A.

Walter found a wheelchair, and he and Kristy took T.J. inside the terminal. While this scenario played out, other travelers walked or drove by or stood and watched. Nobody else offered to help.

“Walter’s all ‘I’m going to go back to work,’ and Kristy had to leave to catch her plane, and I was trying to get my bearings,” T.J. said. “I was saying ‘Guys, I have got to get your names – your numbers. I’ve got to buy you drinks for the rest of your life.

“These are just the most amazing people,” T.J. said. “People don’t just run into a flaming van and try to help somebody out. Because of them, I get to live the rest of my life. I’ve always tried to live my life good, but after what they’ve done, I’m going to try to give back even more – try to pay it forward as much as I can.”

The trio has met for lunch, and they phone each other and text “all the time.”

“In my phone they’re listed as heroes,” T.J. said. “The world would be better off if there were more Walter and Kristy’s in the world.”

About the Author

Elaine Paniszczyn
Elaine Paniszczyn earned a degree in Journalism with English as a second major from East Texas A&M in Commerce. She taught journalism in Midland and Lewisville for 23 years. After retiring last year, she put her skills to work for Rambler Newspapers. Her pastimes are reading, dancing, traveling, and spending time with friends and her dog Prissy.