By Rob Mims, Public Affairs Officer, NCBC Gulfport
EO2 Melissa Estes, NMCB 133, reviews video footage with Dave Barnes, NBC videographer, on board NCBC Gulfport, Miss., Aug. 17, after helping rescue two women from a burning SUV on Interstate 10 in Hancock County. Photo by Rob Mims.
On a pretty typical southern Mississippi summer morning, Aug. 16, Equipment Operator 2nd Class Melissa Estes, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133, who had just picked her mother up from the airport in New Orleans, had an experience that was anything but typical.
Estes, a six-year Seabee, saw a smoking sport utility vehicle (SUV) off the side of Interstate 10 in Hancock County. Much to the angst of her mother, Estes pulled over to offer assistance. Little would prepare her for what she saw next.
“I noticed the smoke,” Estes said. “I saw only one person so I stopped and ran down there to help.”
As she went down to the SUV to help a man who also stopped to assist, she saw a woman pinned inside the car. She also noticed the flames picking up intensity under the hood of the severely damaged vehicle.
The driver, Giovanna Demonte, of Picayune, was unconscious. “She was pretty much crunched in the vehicle,” Estes said.
As she was trying to free the woman she noticed movement in the back of the SUV. It was the woman’s disabled sister, Felicidad Demonte. Estes quickly removed Felicidad’s seatbelt while another person who stopped to help took a wheelchair from the back of the SUV. Estes took Felicidad via wheelchair to safety with bystanders by the roadway, and returned to continue trying to free the trapped driver.
As other motorists happened on the scene, a desperate search for fire extinguishers or any other substance that could douse the flames ensued.
“Someone came with a case of bottled water and we used that,” Estes said. “Some people came running with coolers of ice. Everything that we had, we were using.”
A cement delivery truck arrived to help. The driver used 150 gallons of water in his truck to keep the fire at bay while three men pried the driver’s door open with a crowbar, Estes said.
After the door was opened, Estes cut the seatbelt with a knife, releasing the driver from the burning SUV. Estes and another rescuer helped the crying and screaming woman to safety as fire trucks arrived on the scene.
Giovanna Demonte was airlifted to a local hospital with serious injuries, while Felicidad Demonte suffered only minor injuries.
Estes said if things hadn’t come together as they did or if this accident happened in a remote area, the outcome could have been tragic. Thanks to the heroic actions of passersby working toward a common goal, two lives were saved. “I was honored to be a part of that,” Estes said.
Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert, who arrived on the scene during the rescue, first assisted and then documented and interviewed people who helped. Estes was one of the people who captured Herbert’s attention. After he wrote and released his story and photos, national media became interested in her, also. Estes was interviewed by NBC for Nightly News with Brian Williams and The Today Show, as well as ABC’s Good Morning America.
Estes, who was injured during the rescue when a snapped tow hook hit her in the shoulder, took it all in stride and said she was truly humbled by all the attention. However, she said she was more concerned about the condition of the driver of the SUV.