Jose Perez recalled the harrowing moments in January 2017 when he stopped to help two trapped victims of an accident on Highway 152 east of San Felipe Road.
“Well, it happened right in front of me,” said Perez, a Morgan Hill resident, at a ceremony Monday where he was honored for his heroism.
Perez said he had been eastbound on the highway when all of the sudden, the pickup truck in front of him exploded. He weaved around the vehicles, noticing how the 2005 Ford F-150 veered sharply to the right and hit a guardrail before stopping. A second vehicle, a 2002 Mercedes Benz, exploded off to the left.
“I got out and I just dialed 911,” he said.
Running toward the truck, he saw flames in the engine and knew the rest of the vehicle was going to catch fire. He couldn’t get the first door open. When running to the other side, the engine exploded, he recalled.
He did get the other door open and started working to remove the two victims.
Perez provided details of his story and his thoughts at the time during a special ceremony Monday at the Gilroy-Hollister California Highway Patrol office.
According to the CHP, the incident involved the Mercedes and Ford truck along with a 2012 Scion. The driver and passenger in the truck sustained major injuries to their lower extremities and had been incapacitated, but CHP Commander Scott Parker with the local office reported they are both doing well now.
Shortly after Perez and Flores removed the victims, the passenger compartment of the pickup became fully engulfed in flames.
The CHP honored Perez with the Medal of Distinction. Perez and another man, Vidal Flores, were passing motorists and worked together on the fatal accident scene to save two residents who had been trapped in the truck. Flores is from out of the area and will receive a similar distinction at a later date, according to the CHP.
Parker spoke at the ceremony and noted the rarity of the honor, how in his 20 years working in the area the office had never handed out the Medal of Distinction.
Perez attended with his family, including wife Marie and two boys. Perez, a corporate jet pilot raised by farmworkers in Salinas, received honors from State Sen. Bill Monning’s office and Assemblywoman Anna Caballero’s office during the ceremony as well.
Before Perez retold the story at the gathering, Parker read from what he called a “Superior Effort Act Citation.”
Parker recalled how Perez immediately stopped at the scene of the traffic collision, observed the trapped passengers—with one slumped over the steering wheel—and worked with Flores to pull them to safety.
“Absent your selfless actions, the occupants trapped inside the burning Ford would not have survived,” Parker said. “You are commended for your heroic actions, which saved the lives of two motorists. On behalf of the California Highway Patrol and the two people you saved, thank you very much for your brave and selfless actions.”
Perez, who graduated from San Jose State and has lived in the region his whole life, told reporters he was just hoping he’d have enough time to get the passengers out.
“They were not going to get out on their own,” he said.
He said it was a huge mess on the scene with debris everywhere. He was also there to comfort the mother whose daughter died in the accident.
“We were talking to her the whole time before the paramedics came and the CHP officers came,” he said. “We were just trying to keep them calm.”
As for his own family background, he mentioned having seven siblings.
“My parents were field workers. They worked hard so that we could get ahead,” he said, noting how most of his siblings went to college and became professionals. “They instilled in us hard work and helping others.”
He has not had contact with the two people he helped to save, but Parker pointed out those residents of the Los Banos area are doing well.
Perez’s own wife beamed with pride through the ceremony while taking video on her phone for the family’s keepsake.
“The fire starting in the engine, that was definitely a huge concern when I heard that,” she said. “So I’m extremely thankful that he was OK and that he was able to save those two people from that truck. It’s just unfortunate that there was a fatality at the scene, but it could’ve been worse.”
The honoree said he was thankful for the recognition from the CHP.
“Well, I appreciate it,” he said. “It’s a very nice gesture.”