By Charlie Morasch
Shawn Hubbard smiled and accepted the plaque at the Los Angeles-area Target Distribution Center on a sunny day in early January.
With wife April and sons Joshua, 10, and Jonathan, 15, surrounding him at the ceremony, Hubbard found himself struggling to put his emotions into words.
“I always want to help someone, no matter what the consequences may be,” said Hubbard, a company driver for Ruan Transportation.
Eight weeks earlier, the OOIDA member from Victorville, CA, was the only help for an injured passenger trapped in a burning car. Every workday, Hubbard runs dedicated routes between the distribution center and several L.A.-area Targets.
On Nov. 13, 2009, Hubbard’s job led him directly into a lifesaving opportunity.
The flames flickered all around the white Chrysler car that early morning, lighting up an otherwise pitch-black hillside.
Pulling his company truck over, Hubbard grabbed his fire extinguisher, hopped down and ran to the car.
“I just figured it was a car fire,” said Hubbard, who worked as a police officer in Torrance, CA, in the late 1990s. “If I see someone that needs help, I’m going to stop and get help.”
Walking closer, Hubbard saw that the smashed car appeared to have hit several poles, and had come to rest in a ditch against a chain link fence running alongside California Highway 60.
He emptied the fire extinguisher quickly, as well as a second extinguisher tossed to him by a bystander.
Standing over the car, Hubbard could see that the driver, 20-year-old Zach Headden, was motionless and had apparently died from the wreck’s impact. A person in the passenger seat, however, was alive.
As the flames grew stronger, Hubbard knew he needed to quickly pull the car’s passenger – Armando Duenas – from the wreckage.
The crushed car had pinned Duenas in from all sides. The damage to the car and Duenas’ size made it impossible for him to unbuckle his seat belt by himself. Hubbard said it took all of his 230-pound frame and adrenaline to pull the fence and collapsed roof off of Duenas, giving him the room he needed to unbuckle.
Hubbard was then able to pull Duenas from the car.
“It was two minutes max from the time I pulled over to the time I started pulling him out of the car,” Hubbard said. “He’s a big dude. After we got him to the ground, I started pushing him up the hill because I was afraid the fire would consume the hillside.
“I was screaming at him. I said, ‘If you don’t move and get out, you’re going to burn to death.’ ”
Within seconds, Hubbard was pushing the larger man up the hill as flames fully engulfed the car.
Minutes later, emergency responders arrived onto the scene. They found Duenas with broken cheekbones, several missing teeth and deep cuts around his knee.
Hubbard said he believes his training and experience in emergency response helped him judge the fire’s severity and helped him pry Duenas from the wreckage.
“I did a lot of training in fire rescue and fire safety,” Hubbard said. “Since I was going into law enforcement at the time, it was good to have on my resume.”
Throughout the entire event, Hubbard said he was disappointed to notice that none of the many passing cars stopped to help.
Highway 60 is seven lanes, and is a major east-west corridor through the Los Angeles area.
A trucker who first reported the burning fire returned to the scene, he said, but Hubbard was left mostly alone in the crucial few minutes between him parking his truck and pulling Duenas from the fiery car.
“Nobody came to help me – nobody stopped on the side of the road – and this is a major highway,” Hubbard said.
Duenas, 23, lost a close friend in Headdon, the driver who was believed to have fallen asleep before the crash.
The two met while playing in the Pacific Crest Drum and Bugle Corp, and they later attended college together.
The friends had recently begun playing as part of a ska/punk band.
On the morning of the wreck, Headdon and Duenas were returning home to the L.A. area after playing a band gig in San Diego until 2 a.m.
Duenas remembers trying to stay alert to help Headdon remain awake, and bits and pieces of being in the ambulance before he woke up in the hospital. He was told the car struck multiple light poles, a highway sign and nearly 100 yards of chain link fence before coming to rest.
“I honestly don’t remember a thing about the accident,” Duenas said.
Duenas spent five days in the hospital before returning home for several weeks of recuperation.
Hubbard will always remember Nov. 13, 2009, the day that left lasting memories of his heroic few minutes – and the haunting images.
Ruan Transportation awarded Hubbard a Gold “R” certificate to commemorate his “Unselfish Humanitarian Efforts.” The ceremony was held at the Target Distribution Center in Fontana, CA, and included several of Hubbard’s supervisors.
“Shawn’s exemplary actions and rapid decision undoubtedly saved the passenger’s life,” read a statement from Ruan. “His outstanding reaction to an extremely difficult situation speaks volumes about his character and sets an example for all of us to follow.”
Duenas is still recuperating from the incident. The son of a trucker, he says he has always respected professional drivers. Hubbard’s actions, however, brought a true hero into his life.
The two have remained in touch, with Hubbard usually calling to check in on Duenas.
In January, Hubbard was trying to help Duenas replace his cell phone. Duenas’ bass trombone also was lost in the wreckage.
On the day of the wreck, Hubbard stopped into a hospital to visit Duenas – who was being wheeled into surgery to repair his fractured cheekbone.
“Thank you,” Duenas said in tears. “I owe my life to you.” LL