FORT RUCKER, Ala. — On the evening of Oct. 9, 2022, two servicemembers and their families were each driving in opposite directions on the same highway in Florida, with no idea their paths would intersect at a point of crisis.
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Nigel P. Huebscher, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot assigned to the Officer Training Branch, Directorate of Training and Doctrine, at Fort Rucker, Alabama, was traveling north on Florida State Route 79, returning to the Wiregrass area from his family’s trip to Mexico Beach.
Florida Air National Guard Major Bradley J. Vaughn, a senior air defense officer at the 601st Air Operation Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and his family were headed south, back to the Panama City Beach area from a trip to Aplin Farms.
They both stopped that Sunday around 5 p.m., just north of Bonifay.
As the Huebscher family passed a small house, they noticed flames on the porch area and going up the side of the house. They turned their vehicle around and pulled up to a gate in the driveway. Huebscher’s wife Devi immediately called 911.
Surveying the scene, he noticed the gate to the property was locked, and the fence had two rows of barbed wire atop it. Huebscher jumped the gate and ran up to the house, where he saw a large pile of rags burning on the wooden porch, with a gas can nearby. He grabbed the gas can and flung it away from the house.
An elderly woman met him at the door, but when he asked if anyone else was in the home, she seemed confused, mumbled a response, and she tried to go back inside. He got the impression there was someone else in the house, and he steered the woman down the steps and away from the home.
He entered the small house and found an elderly man in a bed sound asleep. He woke the man, who was then confused to see a stranger in his home.
Huebscher repeatedly told the man the house was on fire, and eventually he got out of bed and walked toward the door, with Huebscher also pushing him along. By the time they reached the door, the smoke was thick black inside the home, and the exterior was engulfed in flames. As the fire came across the open doorway, the man started to turn around and go back toward his bedroom.
By this time, the Vaughn family had also arrived on the scene, and saw that the elderly woman needed help.
“From the time that we pulled over to the time that I got to the house, the house fire had gotten exponentially worse. As I hopped out of the truck there was a little bit of smoke, but I could make out the front porch and the front door. But as I got done helping the woman get to the gate, with all the flames and smoke I couldn’t tell where the front door was anymore,” said Vaughn.
He heard Devi, who was on the phone with 911, yelling to him, “My husband went in the house!”
Vaughn got as close as he could to the house but the flames and heat were too intense to try to go inside, and he could hear things popping on the inside of the house, as if ammunition had been ignited.
Huebscher, who was still inside with the homeowner, suddenly shoved the man and himself through the doorway, out of the house.
“Out of nowhere, a blockbuster movie, all of a sudden I see this man come tumbling out — he was flying out through the smoke with an old man, and they both kind of spill out in the smoke and fall,” Vaughn said.
The house exploded and a fireball shot out, with flames quickly scorching the yard. Huebscher recalled stumbling forward in the yard, and the elderly man fell down and was still in harm’s way.
At that instant Huebscher saw Vaughn run into the flames to get the man to safety.
“Watching Vaughn go into that fire was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” Huebscher said. “I got the guy out of the house, but he would have died on his front yard if weren’t for Brad Vaughn.”
Ohers arrived on the scene and offered assistance. Together they helped move the man, and Vaughn checked the man’s breathing, his eyes, and asked him some questions to clarify if anyone else was in the home.
“I felt better that we got everybody out — Nigel got everybody out,” Vaughn said.
As they moved the man again, they had to avoid a live power line that had been seared by the fire and fell into the driveway.
Vaughn retrieved bottled waters from his family’s camping gear. As the emergency responders took over the scene, Vaughn and his family eventually departed, while Huebscher remained on the scene to relay information to the responders.
“If Nigel had not stopped and gone in when he did, I don’t think either of those people would have made it out,” said Vaughn. “I was the second one there. I would have got there, we would have called 911, and I would have watched that house burn down, just wondering, hoping, praying there was no one inside.”
Thankfully, everyone survived. The residents of the home were taken by ambulance for medical assessment. They later learned the man was airlifted for medical treatment for burns and is expected to fully recover.
The two servicemembers, who were in civilian clothes that day, later linked up via social media and learned each other’s service affiliation.
Everyone who helped, including other good Samaritans who stopped to help with initial first aid, and assist the couple to safety, all deserve credit, Huebscher said. In his mind the events of that evening seemed to slow down, but in reality everything happened very quickly.
“I think that whole event was a matter of seconds really,” Huebscher said. “Thirty seconds to a minute earlier and I’d never have seen the flames. Thirty seconds to a minute later and I’d never got out of the house. Timing was everything in this case.”
Huebscher said his wife Devi thought she would never see him again when he went into the burning house that day. It wasn’t until the next day that the gravity of the situation caught up with him.
“It was just the right thing to do,” Huebscher said.
Mayor Travis Cook of Bonifay, who is also a volunteer firefighter, said the Bonifay Fire Rescue team were grateful for the servicemembers’ actions.
“In my opinion, there is no such thing as a coincidence. I wholeheartedly believe God places each and every person at specific locations at specific times for specific reasons,” Cook said. “If not for the selfless, heroic efforts of these two men, I believe this would have been a fatal fire for the homeowner.”
On Bonifay Fire — Rescue’s Facebook page later that night, Jennifer Yancey, the daughter of the elderly man reached out to the people who saved her father and stepmother.
“Thank you for whoever stopped and got her attention, and to all the firefighters and emergency personnel! You will never know how much it means to me and my family, “she posted.