Donald Fletcher Jr. was on his way home from work when he noticed a ball of fire glowing in the distance. It was about 7 p.m., and Fletcher, a battalion chief for the Prince George’s County Fire Department, approached the blaze thinking it would be a house on fire.
But as he got closer to the driveway of the Anne Arundel County home where smoke streamed into the sky, he saw an orange Dodge Challenger engulfed in flames. A man with a “thousand-yard stare” stood in front of the car.
“I asked if he was okay, and he still just stared at me,” Fletcher said, recalling the Feb. 10 incident in Edgewater, Md. “I questioned him, and he fled on foot.”
Fletcher looked back at the billowing smoke and flames and noticed something odd: Only the passenger-side door was open, but the driver’s-side window was down.
Fletcher blindly plunged his hand into the open window that was pumping out a black cloud. He patted around and felt an arm. An unconscious man was in the driver’s seat, leaning over the center console.
“I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him 15 to 20 feet,” Fletcher said. “He regained consciousness and stared at me with the same thousand-yard look” as the man who had run off.
The man jumped up, shoved Fletcher and crawled back into the flaming car. This time, he locked the door.
It turns out, the man in the car was having a psychological emergency and was under the influence of drugs, Anne Arundel County police spokesman Marc Limansky said. The fire appears to have been accidental, but the car burst into flames because of “excessive wheel spinning,” Limansky said.
When the man went back to the car, Fletcher ran after him.
Fire rolled out of the passenger compartment as Fletcher again reached his arm into the driver’s-side window, this time to pull up the knob that unlocked the door. Though the man kept resisting, Fletcher managed to drag him out once more and pulled him 15 feet to a place where he could be restrained. The man yelled, screamed questions and raged at Fletcher for keeping him away from the fiery car.
“During the moment, it really wasn’t of much concern,” Fletcher said of running toward the burning car. “He was having some kind of medical emergency or thought that he wanted to get back in there. My main focus was protecting him from himself and the vehicle.”
Fletcher and a bystander restrained the man until police arrived. The man, whom police are not identifying, was taken to a hospital. Anne Arundel firefighters arrived and put out the fire.
“If Chief Fletcher had not been in the right place at the right time, this story may have had a very different ending,” the Prince George’s firefighters union said in a Facebook message that has been shared more than 1,000 times, with upward of 600 comments. The post included a photo of Fletcher’s pants, blackened and melted from the rescue.
This is not the first time Fletcher has been recognized for heroism. In his 14 years with the department, he’s been honored for saving a firefighter who fell through the roof of a burning home and rescuing a dog trapped in a home filled with leaking gas.
Commenters have commended Fletcher for the Anne Arundel rescue and called him the man’s guardian angel. But Fletcher said he simply saw the incident as an extension of his earlier 12-hour shift, in which he had responded to a house fire, a gas leak and other calls.
“I was coming home from work, and my switch was still in work mode,” he said. “I didn’t even think.”
After Fletcher got a clean bill of health from paramedics that night, he texted his wife to say he was “running a little bit behind.”
When he got home, she noticed his burned and sooty clothes.
“I swear,” Fletcher recalled telling her, “I just wanted to come home and go to bed.”