Like most heroes, Chris Baker doesn’t think he did anything special a little more than a year ago. The Cowan Systems driver says repeatedly that when he saw an overturned minivan catch fire, he didn’t think; he just reacted.
Baker, a 47-year-old regional driver whose home terminal is in Westfield, Massachusetts, was driving along Route 18 just outside East Brunswick, New Jersey, around 4 a.m. on May 16, 2015, when he spotted flickering lights ahead. He realized an accident had just occurred.
As he got closer, Baker saw a minivan flipped onto its passenger side and a bread-delivery truck that had also been involved in the crash.
Just as Baker was stopping, flames erupted near the minivan’s engine. He says he completely forgot his three-point stance, and says, “I just jumped out of my truck and grabbed my fire extinguisher.”
Another man, Adam Livow, also ran to assist. Together, they put out the fire. The minivan’s passenger had escaped from the vehicle, but the driver was unconscious and hanging by his seatbelt. Baker and Livow unfastened the man’s seat belt, grabbed him by the arm and shoulder, pulled him from the vehicle and moved the driver farther away.
“Then I just started talking to him, telling him he was safe, he was in a major accident and the paramedics were on the way,” Baker says.
The man was moaning and began gagging at one point. Baker rolled him on his side so his airway would clear, and he began breathing steadily again.
Baker says he stayed by the man’s side and held his hand, even after police and paramedics arrived 15 or 20 minutes after he came upon the scene. Thanks to Baker and Livow, the man suffered no significant injuries.
A truck driver for more than 20 years, Baker has no formal training as a first responder and hasn’t had experience with other rescues. But, because his mother was a home-health-care nurse, he says he knew how to check for a pulse and knew to turn the man on his side when he choked.
After the incident, Cowan Systems honored Baker with a Knight of the Road award, which recognizes drivers for performing above and beyond expectations.
His response comes as no surprise to those who know him.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” says Scott Ehlen, Baker’s terminal manager. “He puts other people before himself and his own concerns.”
Last month, the East Brunswick Department of Public Safety presented Baker and Livow with the East Brunswick Civilian Service Award, noting their quick actions and disregard for their own personal safety directly prevented another person’s injury.
Baker says he told his daughter “no” when she asked him if he thought about the possibility of the minivan exploding.
“In my head, someone could have been seriously hurt,” he says. He told his daughter: “‘What if this happened to me or your mother? If I got into an accident, I hope someone would help me.’”
Since the vehicle was a minivan, Baker says he thought there might be kids inside or a person with a family.
“My family means everything to me,” he says. “If I can get someone back to their son or daughter or wife, I did a good thing.”
Ehlen says Baker is devoted to both his career and his loved ones.
His family includes his wife, Nancy, their two children, Elizabeth, 20, and Joseph, 17, and his stepdaughter, Samantha, 23.
“[Baker is] one of my most dedicated drivers,” Ehlen says. “He’s committed to his job, but he also works hard to strike a balance between work and family. I really don’t have anybody better than him.”
The feeling is mutual. “Cowan is a great company,” Baker says. “They’ve treated me well, and I give them everything I’ve got.”
A self-described Army brat, Baker says working with big trucks was his dream. “I’ve always been fascinated by them,” he says. His father worked in construction, with heavy equipment, in the service; his paternal grandfather drove a bus and his maternal grandfather hauled boats.
“It’s kind of in my blood,” he says. “When my mom offered to send me to tractor-trailer school, I jumped all over it.”
Ehlen says Cowan Systems is lucky Baker is part of the team.
“We’re very proud to have one of our own act in such a heroic fashion,” Ehlen says. “He represented himself and Cowan Systems well.”
Baker still insists that he was only reacting. “Life is a special thing,” he says. “You only get one crack at it.”