Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that a spokeswoman for MedStar Washington Hospital Center did not respond to a request to interview the victims’ families. The families did not respond to a request made through the spokeswoman. This version has been corrected.
The early morning crash on Georgia Avenue was loud enough to wake a city block. A Jeep Cherokee driven by a man police said had downed at least a dozen beers and was driving at twice the speed limit slammed into the back of a Honda Civic stopped at a traffic light.
The impact sent the Civic spinning 110 feet down a residential section, south of Decatur Street, and into a line of parked cars, police said. Gasoline poured from a ruptured tank, ignited and engulfed the car in flames, trapping the occupants inside. Gas tanks rarely crack even in the most serious crashes, and authorities described this one as unusually severe.
Two D.C. police officers, William Gill and Paul Hrebenak, who happened by in the pre-dawn hours on Sunday, rushed to the rescue, forced open the driver’s side door on the Civic and reached into the flames. They pulled out the driver and passenger, leaving each of the officers with blistered hands and burns on their faces and arms.
Freddie Lopez, 38, of Hyattsville, whom police identified as the driver of the Jeep, is in jail, charged with two counts of aggravated assault while armed and driving under the influence. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in D.C. Superior Court. His attorney did not return repeated phone calls and e-mails.
The men in the Civic remain hospitalized with myriad internal injuries and burns. The driver, from Virginia, suffered bleeding from the brain, broken ribs, a punctured lung, damage to his spleen and kidneys, and third-degree burns over 17 percent of his body. His passenger, a cousin, has third-degree burns over nearly 40 percent of his body. Both are at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, their families at their bedside. The family did not respond to an interview request made through a hospital spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, the officers — Gill, 27, just a year out of the Police Academy, and his partner, Hrebenak, 29 — are back on the beat in Petworth. Police commanders are calling them heroes, and their boss is nominating them for an award.
“Our training tells us to notify the fire department,” said Lt. Shane Lamond, commander of the 4th District’s night watch. “But they knew they had no time, and there is no doubt in my mind that the two victims would have died in the fire had the officers not acted.”
Police would not allow the officers to talk publicly, citing an ongoing investigation and a pending trial.
Accounts of the incident, which occurred about 4:15 a.m. in the southbound lanes of Georgia Avenue, come from the charging document filed in court against Lopez and interviews with Lamond and a resident awakened by the crash.
Police said that the impact of the Jeep hitting the smaller car pushed the Civic’s trunk into the front seat, with metal scraping so hard against the street that it gouged the Georgia Avenue asphalt.
Investigators found no skid marks, indicating that the Jeep’s brakes weren’t applied as the vehicle hit the Civic at what police estimated was 50 mph. When Gill and Hrebenak got to the Civic, their lieutenant said, it resembled a pile of metal.
One officer pulled on the driver’s side door, but it wouldn’t budge. He pulled again. And again. Finally, it popped open, and the officers reached inside to grab the victims.
“Their good timing was what saved those people,” said Charles Brooks, 56, who lives on Georgia Avenue and was awakened by the crash. He ran outside in his nightclothes to see the officers dragging the victims away from the burning car.
Brooks said that another officer grabbed a fire extinguisher from his cruiser but that the flames were too intense.
“It was the worst of the worst,” he said. Of the Civic, Brooks recalled, “Only about half of it was left when they came to tow it away.”
The suspect, whose name also appears in court documents as Fredy Manuel Lopez Juarez, tried to close the door to the Jeep when a police officer tried to get him out, according to court documents. “I’m okay,” he reportedly told Officer Richard Mason.
Later, at George Washington University Hospital, police said that the slightly injured suspect allowed authorities to take two blood samples. Police said they found two half-filled bottles of Corona in the Jeep’s front passenger seat.
According to the court documents, Lopez told police that he had started drinking at a restaurant on 14th Street about midnight, having seven or eight beers over two to three hours. He told police that he then went to another restaurant on Georgia Avenue, where he drank seven or eight more beers in an hour.
Police said in the court papers that Lopez told them he didn’t remember the accident, recalling only “waking up in the hospital.” He told police that he had been convicted of a drunken-driving offense in Virginia; court documents show he was given a suspended six-month sentence in 2003 for driving while intoxicated in Arlington County.
Lamond said that the officers barely had time to call the fire department before they rushed to the rescue and confronted the fire, wearing only their standard-issue uniform of poly/cotton-blend short-sleeve shirts and trousers.
Brooks recalled seeing the officers drag the injured occupants of the Civic away from the fire as other police questioned the driver of the Jeep, only slightly hurt and able to stand.
The ones waiting for a light to change at an otherwise desolate intersection in the middle of the night are the ones in the hospital, he said, while “the other guy walked away.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.