With her body bruised and broken, watching flames lick up the side of the demolished van that had become her prison, Denise Boulanger was certain she was about to die.
What had started as the final lap of a weekend trip for the Prince George woman and her family May 19 had turned into a close brush with death. Denise, her husband Wayne and their five-year-old son Lorn set out that Sunday afternoon on Highway 16 from Prince Rupert in their Plymouth Grand Voyageur minivan. A little over 20 kilometres outside of Terrace Wayne noticed the steering was becoming loose. He slowed to 80 km/hour and the steering seemed to go back to normal. He began to speed up again and, just after reaching the speed limit, the steering let out completely and the van shot off the highway, tumbling sideways down the steep embankment.
Denise, who was sleeping in the passenger seat of the van, woke just as the van shot off the highway.
“I woke up and when I opened my eyes all I could see was dirt, and I could tell just by the sensation and the noise that we were spinning,” said Denise.
The van came to a rest upside-down at the bottom of the embankment. Denise, Wayne and Lorn hung, suspended by their seatbelts. Wayne was frantically trying to unbuckle himself and free the rest of his family, said Denise, while she was trying to fight back the pain she felt coursing through her body.
“Lorn was hanging upside-down, crying Daddy, Daddy, help me,” she said. Meanwhile, Denise’s battered seat came free of the floor of the car and she tumbled to the ceiling, lying on her back and staring up at her son and husband. That’s when she saw the flames, just a few feet from Lorn, and spreading.
“I saw it and I panicked,” she said. “I kept yelling Wayne, get Lorn and get away.”
Wayne freed himself, scrambling out the driver’s window and to the side window where he could grab Lorn out. He quickly herded his son up the embankment away from the engulfed van.
“I thought it was the last time I would see them,” said Denise. “I thought the van was going to blow up and I would die.”
She tried to crawl out of the wreckage the same way Wayne had, but her injuries stopped her halfway out of the window.
Meanwhile, Jim Horner, his wife Michelle and their three children were driving back from a day trip to Prince Rupert when Michelle spotted a tree on fire. At first, said Jim, they thought it was a lightning strike from recent stormy weather. As they drew closer they realized the flames had spread to the tree from a van of the side of the road. Jim turned their car around and pulled up to the edge of the highway, running from his car towards the van.
“I saw Wayne crawling out of the vehicle, crying out for help,” said Jim, a car rental agent in Terrace. “He was screaming for someone to rescue his kid, but I think he was in shock because he had him in his arms already.”
Racing to the van, Jim saw Denise halfway out of the flaming wreckage. Braving the flames – which by now had engulfed the entire underside of the van – he pulled her free of the van, tugging her up the slope back to the highway.
The rescue was well-timed. Five explosions came shortly after Denise, Wayne and Lorn were safely back to the highway – first the four tires, detonating in the heat, then the full gas tank of the car exploding.
Denise – now recovering at her home in Prince George from a fractured leg and wrist, three fractures in her hip, cracked ribs and numerous cuts and bruises – is still amazed that a complete stranger risked his life to save her.
“He could have been putting himself in danger, but he didn’t care,” she said. “He just did what he had to do to save me.”
Wayne escaped the crash with a few gashes to his head. Lorn was completely unharmed except for a small gash on his head, something Denise attributes to the child seat and five-point seatbelt he was wearing when the van careened off the road.
“For the kid to have been unharmed was just amazing,” said Jim. “I was amazed that anyone survived such a terrible crash.”
Denise said ICBC is still investigating what made the van’s steering give out.