A Mercedes SUV burns in the background. A Salinas Valley State Prison Officer pulled Rhea Nabua, 33, from the burning car on Feb. 1.

A Mercedes SUV burns in the background. A Salinas Valley State Prison Officer pulled Rhea Nabua, 33, from the burning car on Feb. 1.

Salinas Valley State Prison officer commended for helping at accident

By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Accident photos courtesy Marina Police Department

A Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) Correctional Officer recently pulled a woman from a burning car, saving her life. As she lies in a hospital bed in a coma, the officer is still trying to help.

While driving home after completing Third Watch at SVSP, Correctional Officer Mike Johnson came across the scene of an accident. As one of the first on scene, he credits his California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation training for his actions.

The accident

“I observed a vehicle on fire and a second vehicle was smoldering,” he said of the Feb. 1 incident. “It appeared to be a head-on collision. My most immediate concern was an SUV-style Mercedes. The front was engulfed in flames.”

Johnson, a Correctional Officer since July 2009, said his training kicked in.

“The first thing I did was treat it like a Code 2 response and that was to get a quick review of the scene and determine what my assets were,” he said. “There were two people driving by who pulled over. The first guy I told to call 911 and grabbed him to follow me to a vehicle. We went to the first car that wasn’t on fire. There was a lady who was conscious and breathing. She asked what happened. I told her she’d been in an accident. I said, ‘I’m going to leave this guy here with you and you’ll be OK.’ I left him with her and went to the other car.”

He grabbed the other bystander and put him to work.

Officer Mike Johnson started his CDCR career in July 2009.

Officer Mike Johnson started his CDCR career in July 2009.

“Then I went to the Mercedes, which was on fire. I saw a female had been ejected from the front passenger side and was lying face down on the ground about eight feet away from the vehicle,” he said. “There was a man who was to the right of that, outside the vehicle, kneeling up against the fence and in a great deal of pain. So, the second person on scene, I grabbed him and said, ‘Hey, I need you to help me get this person away from the vehicle.’ So we picked her up and carried her about 50 feet where it was safe and laid her on the ground, closer to the man.”

Johnson turned his attention back to the burning Mercedes.

“I asked the man if there was anyone else inside the vehicle. He said he didn’t know. I asked him his name and he didn’t answer,” he said. “He was obviously going into shock.”

He went to one of the back passenger doors and tried to get it to open, but it was jammed shut from the force of the accident.

“So I went around to the rear of this SUV Mercedes and it was full of suitcases,” he said. “I started throwing them on the ground so I could see. I saw the top of someone’s head, a female, behind the driver’s seat all the way down on the floorboard. That’s all I could see.”

The flames were intensifying and Johnson knew he needed to quickly act.

“I went to the passenger side and looked inside the vehicle. The front seats were on fire, the entire front half of the car was on fire. The windshield had basically melted,” he said. “In the back seat, the center console had been pushed forward and had trapped the female who was lying on the floorboard. Her legs were trapped under the driver’s seat.”

She was unconscious.

He began pulling and ripping out the center console and the arm rest.

The Mercedes SUV became fully engulfed seconds after they pulled the young lady from the vehicle.

The Mercedes SUV became fully engulfed seconds after they pulled the young lady from the vehicle.

“I literally tore them out of the car and threw them outside so I could get to her,” he said. Then he felt glass shatter and looked up. A Marina Police Officer had smashed the window on the other side. Help had arrived. “There was no way to get her out on my side so I ran around to where the officer was and he was trying to get the door open as well. I yelled at him we had to get the door open. We grabbed it and we tore it open.”

Flames moving closer, he reached in and lifted her by the shoulders, pulling her out. The Marina Police Officer grabbed her by her legs and together they carried her to a waiting paramedic.

“After we got the female victim out of the car, we looked back and it was fully engulfed. It was just a couple of seconds before it became fully engulfed and we heard several explosions from the vehicle. I don’t know what the explosions were. If we hadn’t gotten her out, she would have died.”

Other help had arrived as well.

“At that point, an ambulance was there and we placed her on a backboard, where an EMT started working on her,” Johnson recalled. Even though emergency crews were on scene, Johnson continued to help. He worked with another EMT to place the first victim, whom they had carried away from the car, on a backboard.

“While doing so, I heard the EMT working on the other victim yell, ‘She’s posturing!’ I didn’t know what it meant. I said, ‘Tell me what you need me to do.’ The EMT said we had to open an airway and a large amount of blood was coming up through her mouth,” Johnson said. “So I tried to pry open her mouth but I wasn’t able to get it open enough for an air tube to be put in but a second EMT was able to suction the blood out, opening her airway.”

The final victim was pulled from the other car by firefighters during the commotion.

A sigh of relief

By then, the victims were being transported and Johnson gave his ID to the police on scene.

“One officer said he’d heard of superhuman strength but had never seen it. I ripped out the console and armrest and don’t know how I did it,” he said.

No longer needed, he headed home.

“When I got home, I realized my arms were soaked in blood and I think I’d gotten cut,” he said. “Some was my blood and some was the young lady’s. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but all my exposed areas were burned from the fire’s heat inside the vehicle.”

At 1 a.m., he called his Watch Commander since he’d been in contact with an outside law enforcement agency.

“It was the worst car fire I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Marina Police Department publicly thanked Officer Johnson for his help at the accident.

“We also need to recognize a bystander who really did an outstanding job at the scene of this crash. Mike Johnson, your actions were commendable and did not go unnoticed,” the agency posted on its Facebook page.

Accident victim Rhea Nabua, 33, was traveling with her mother and step-father when they were in a head-on collision. Nabua was pulled from the burning wreckage by Officer Mike Johnson. As of Feb. 24, she was still in a coma.

Accident victim Rhea Nabua, 33, was traveling with her mother and step-father when they were in a head-on collision. Nabua was pulled from the burning wreckage by Officer Mike Johnson. As of Feb. 24, she was still in a coma. Photo courtesy.

Through the post, he made contact with several of the young lady’s friends and he was able to learn more details about the people he helped save.

“This was a mother and a daughter who were in the accident. The young lady (Rhea Nabua) is 33 and had just come back from visiting the Philippines,” he said. “Rhea is still in a hospital and still in a coma. She had brain surgery to relieve pressure.”

The mother, he said, is out of the intensive care unit and is able to speak in short sentences. He said she’s aware of her surroundings and understands she’s in a hospital. The man was treated and is out of the hospital, recovering at home.

Responding to the Police Department’s Facebook post, one person replied, “Thank you (Mike Johnson) for your heroic act. That was my dad, his wife and step daughter you pulled out. I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Still wanting to help

Now he’s trying to help in other ways.

“I got together with a group of her friends and we’ve been working to try to raise funds for her and so far we’ve raised $25,000 to go toward her expenses,” he said.

Now he’s working to get the prison employees involved.

“(SVSP) is the only place I’ve been assigned. This is a great environment, thanks to my coworkers,” Johnson said. “It’s a great place to work.”

He said the prison staff is receptive to helping.

“I spoke to the Warden and several other people and I want to put together a structure so we can accept donations from officers so we can get this started and help this young lady,” Johnson said. “Hopefully she has a long life ahead of her.”

‘Not on my watch’

SVSP acting Warden William Muniz said Johnson’s actions are commendable.

“Correctional Officer Mike R. Johnson exemplifies the highest standards of heroism and selflessness that we all aspire to,” Warden Muniz said. “I want to commend and thank Mike for a job well done.”

Johnson said he was aware of the danger he was placing himself in but wasn’t going to let the young lady burn to death.

“The way I looked at it, I just thought, she’s not going to die on my watch. I knew what I was going into with the car on fire,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let her die, not in that car.”

He fully credits his CDCR training with allowing him to keep calm.

“We do a lot of alarm-response training that teaches you how to manage a situation and I think that was very helpful for me to be able to arrive on a scene, evaluate it, determine a course of action and take the course of action and adapt it as necessary,” Johnson said. “I think anybody would have done what I did. I’m glad I was able to help.”

Read more stories about CDCR employees