Angels in the Fire: The Dramatic True Story of an Impossible Rescue
by Dann Stadler
It’s 8 p.m., Thursday, September 7, 1989, and Mark Payne* is finishing the day at his father’s car dealership in Riviera Beach, Florida. He’s hungry and wants something to eat. However, what he really craves is something to drink, not merely to slake his thirst but to satisfy his urgent need to flood his brain and body with numbing spirits.
*Not his real name. There is no need to cite the name of the drunk driver who hit us that night. It is a matter of public record, if anyone cares to know. I feel that using his real name would only be an act of vengeance and is unnecessary
He stops at a nearby restaurant and orders his first drink.
By his last glass of whiskey, just before midnight, he’s forgotten about his hunger. His goal for the night is satisfied—his mind is numbed, his senses are dulled. Despite his unsteady walk and failing several times to get his key in the car door, he crumples his body into the driver’s seat, cranks the engine to life, and heads home, some ten miles north. When he reaches the on-ramp to I-95 North, he briefly thinks about his last arrest, a DUI some seven months ago, and hopes he won’t pass any troopers on the way. With just a few miles to go, he laughs off the risk and puts his Grateful Dead tape in, blasting the music.
Payne travels nearly thirty miles past the exit to his home in Jupiter. Somehow realizing the mistake through his alcoholic haze, he knows he has to head back south. Thinking he’s on the two-lane road that he usually takes home, he pulls his car over to the right shoulder, waits for the other cars to pass, and makes a wide U-turn. Knowing his wife might worry about him being so late, he steps on the gas and cruises along at 70 miles per hour.
Payne has no idea that he is now traveling the wrong way, heading south on the far right side of the northbound lanes on the six-lane divided freeway of I-95. He has U-turned himself and his red BMW into an unguided missile. The Grateful Dead keep pounding in his ears. It is the last thing he will ever hear.
Dann and Tracey Stadler are driving the same stretch of road that night, returning from their fourth-anniversary dinner to Tracey’s parents’ house in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where they are vacationing from their home in Wisconsin.
Florida State Trooper Sydney Wright is also on I-95 that night, patrolling the freeway. Now just after midnight, she is about ten miles north of Port St. Lucie, traveling southbound when the first call comes over the radio from dispatch: “Red vehicle seen traveling southbound in the northbound lanes, just past Midway Road.” It is about twenty miles south of her location.
Maybe it’s a mistake, Wright thinks. It’s easy to get confused on the dark roads and see headlights that seem to come from the wrong side of the road. Still, her stomach tightens—she’s seen far too many crashes caused by wrong-way drivers. The CB radio crackles with the rough voice of a trucker. He too reports a small red car going the wrong way. A few minutes later the dispatcher comes on with yet another report. With her sirens wailing and lights flashing, Trooper Wright accelerates through the darkness.
At 12:35 a.m. the final call comes in: “Accident with injuries reported, I-95 North, mile marker 109, two miles south of County Road 714. Vehicle fire reported.” Wright’s adrenaline surges and her heart sinks. Oh no. He got someone.
The sudden impact between the two cars sends a bright fireball over the highway, surely seen by every driver within half a mile. Just as quickly, the fireball evaporates and leaves a flickering hulk of twisted metal in its place on the road, the two cars now crumpled to almost half their original size and standing just inches apart. Almost a dozen cars come to an abrupt halt and some of the occupants race toward the smoldering masses of metal. Fear rips through the night air. There is no way anyone could survive a crash that horrific.
Troy Lynne reaches the cars first; the driver of the red BMW is clearly dead. Lynne looks at the other car, which is still burning. Incredibly, both people inside are stirring—alive! He tries to open the doors, but they won’t budge. The front end of the car is pushed in more than four feet; the doors are jammed shut. Lynne can see the flames stabbing at the driver’s legs. He waves frantically toward the horde coming upon the scene, shouting for a fire extinguisher.
I have no recollection of that night following my admonition to Tracey to keep her seat belt on. Tracey doesn’t recall the actual crash, as she was likely sleeping, but the rest of her memories are terrifying—save for an all too brief divine interlude.
After our violent impact, Tracey could only look at me in confusion, silently imploring What happened? I stared back. Then I reached over to try to unbuckle our seat belts. It was too much for Tracey to comprehend. Am I dreaming?
The screams outside the car brought her back to reality. As she told me later, her brain could not process anything—how the accident happened, where we were, how badly we’d been hurt, the extent of the damage, or even our names. Her head was swimming with incredible pain and dizzying thoughts. She could see flames licking at my legs and heard me scream. Other vehicles began coming upon the wreck. The second shift of a nearby factory had just ended, and a trio of men in one vehicle moved into action. They were Mike Debevec, Ben Williams, and Kyle Longwell. As they raced to the scene with a co-worker, Mike Walters, some grabbed fire extinguishers, but nothing seemed to calm the flames. Gas was gushing in spurts from beneath our Ford sedan, and with every surge a loud whoosh erupted as it hit the pavement and ignited. Lynne and others tried to pull Tracey out through a small opening between the sunroof and window, but it was as though they were trying to lift the entire car with her. Everything from the bumper in had collapsed on Tracey’s lower body. She screamed as her rescuers tried to move her amid the intensifying heat.
As Lynne and others continued to try to extract Tracey, Debevec realized I had caught fire and ran to my side of the car with Walters and Longwell. They tried to force open my door without success, so they pounded the window with their fists and rocks, but it seemed to resist every blow. In an act of incredible strength, Debevec curled his fingertips into the space between the top of the driver’s-side window frame and the car. Nearly climbing onto the car door, he pulled with every ounce of strength he could muster. Meanwhile, the flames inside were creeping up my legs. The window frame suddenly yielded, and as he peeled it back, the window shattered. A searing wind shot through the opening and pushed them back.
I raised my arms, grabbed the roof of the car, and pulled myself up through the opening. Debevec, Walters, and Longwell ran back to the car, grabbed me under my arms, and pulled me from the wreck, smothering the flames with their hands.
“Get my wife out!” I shouted. I didn’t call her by name; I doubt I even knew my own name. Others were still frantically trying to pull Tracey out. Another rescuer, James Vellum, reached through the hole in the roof, but still felt resistance as he tugged. I could hear her scream, and then the crowd began to panic. Vellum tried using a two-by-four someone handed him to pry open the door, but it snapped in two. The flames continued to grow more intense. Another man tried breaking the window with a spent fire extinguisher, but that attempt failed as well. With every swing it just bounced stubbornly off of the window.
Flames now filled the car and pinned Tracey against the window. The rescuers seemed powerless to help, and the crowd backed away, fearing an explosion. In the midst of this confusion and horror, a woman in the crowd sank to her knees on the pavement and began to pray—pleading with God to help the rescuers. As she prayed, Pedro Gimenez saw a silent lone figure walk out of the woods. The glow of the fire grew brighter against his face as he drew closer to the car. But as Gimenez watched, it became clear that the glow was not a reflection of the car fire—it was emanating from the figure. Gimenez knew then that the man was not just another spectator who’d happened upon the scene. He was seeing . . . an angel.
At that moment, Ben Williams, who had been riding with Debevec and Longwell, helped the only way he could think of—he began to pray for hope and healing. He later described it: “As I stood in the middle of the road that night with all the activity and confusion going on around me, I just kept praying. Then I suddenly felt an intense rush come over me. I felt the healing power of Jesus Christ so strongly, so intensely, and so overwhelmingly that I just buckled to my knees on the pavement and I couldn’t get back up. I knew the Lord was healing the people in that car. It was a wonderful, incredible feeling; I just sat there on the pavement in awe.”
Tracey looked at the horrified faces surrounding the car. She locked eyes with one woman who was crying. The searing heat sucked her breath away; her lungs felt as if they would burst from within. Then Tracey could feel and smell the flesh on her face burning. Please, God, she prayed, take me now before I burn to death.
An instant later she looked up and saw an incredible sight— Jesus was reaching out to her. At that moment Tracey seemed to float to heaven, just as Longwell was able to remove her lifeless body from the car.
Here is Tracey’s story in her own words:
After Dann and I went out for our fourth anniversary that night, I remember waving good-bye to my brother Tommy after we reached I-95. I told Dann I was going to take a nap on the way home. The last thing I remember was him telling me to keep my seat belt on, which I did.
My next memory was of intense pain. I recall seeing and hearing people yelling and screaming outside our car windows. I thought I was dreaming, but quickly realized this was no dream. I turned my head and looked at Dann. I can still see him, both of us with helpless expressions. He tried to unbuckle our seat belts and then began to scream. I looked down at his legs and realized he was on fire. I tried to get to him, but could not move because the dash and the engine were pressing against my legs. Everything below my waist had been crushed. I started screaming and realized my jaw was broken. When I opened my mouth, I could feel my chin moving against my earlobe. That’s when I realized how hurt I was.
The flames engulfed Dann. I can’t begin to explain the horror of seeing him burning. I was pinned against my seat and the door, and I couldn’t reach him. Just when it looked as though he would be completely overtaken by the flames, someone peeled open his window. Others helped pull him out of the car. I was glad he was out, but I thought he was dead. Someone tried to get my door open, but it didn’t work. He tried again to pull me out through the sunroof. Still I wouldn’t budge; I was trapped. Then everyone began to back away because the heat and flames were too intense. I heard people screaming and yelling to get away; the car was going to blow up. I was hysterical. My God, they’re going to leave me here to burn to death!
I could feel the flames getting closer and closer and my face and arms begin to burn. It was so hot. My lungs and chest felt like they were on fire. I couldn’t breathe. I began to pray with all the energy I had left. I can still recall the prayer:
“God, please forgive me for my sins. You said that you have many mansions—I pray that there is room for me in heaven. I also pray that you take me now so I don’t burn to death. Please don’t let me burn.”
In the next instant, I looked up and saw Him—Jesus—my Lord and Savior. He looked almost like an angel to me, but I knew it was Him. I felt like He was there to comfort me and to heal me. Throughout my experience, He was with me. I felt like I’d known Him my entire life, even though we had never “met” before.
I wondered how many other times He must have been there for me when I needed help. My mind was racing—how did I know Him? I just knew that somehow our paths had crossed, that we were connected. I wanted to talk to Him but found we didn’t have to speak words. We communicated through our minds. As He reached toward me, my first “words” to Him were, “Boy, you cut this one close!” He smiled and picked me up like a parent carries a child.
The next feeling I had was that we were going “up”; He was carrying me away from the wreck. I suddenly realized what was happening. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” Again, He smiled. I was so excited and expressed to Him, “I was always afraid to die—afraid of the unknown, the pain—but this is wonderful. You should tell people about this, they need to know!” He just smiled a smile of pure beauty and truth. He told me I could look down, but I didn’t want to. As we got further away from the crash site, I felt more peace. It was wonderful. In fact, it was more than I can explain. It wasn’t just escaping the pain of the crash, I was leaving behind every physical pain I had ever had, every emotional trauma I had ever experienced. The heaviness of my earthly body melted away. Even the burden of what had been my life on earth seemed, in His presence, to turn into an airy lightness of pure freedom and joy.
I was vaguely aware of scenes of my life all around me. All the good memories flashed by me but I wasn’t paying attention because I was so focused on Jesus. I wasn’t just overwhelmed; I was consumed by His love, by His complete and utter peace. It was more than amazing.
The words that kept repeating in my mind were from a passage in the Bible: “the peace that passes all understanding.” I felt this incredible, indescribable peace that was all-encompassing— but it wasn’t just a feeling, it became part of who I was. I became peace, love, and joy. All these intense feelings came from Jesus and cannot be properly explained. It was overwhelming. It was wonderful. It was indescribable— how intense these feelings and this reality were. The love that a parent feels for a child is one of the strongest loves there is, but even that pales in comparison with His love. I felt like His arms were wrapped around me, holding me and making me feel completely and perfectly loved. I can’t describe it any other way.
As we went further, I felt as if I were finally going home. I knew with my whole heart and to the depths of my soul that God, our Father, was waiting for me. Think about that, He was waiting—for me! There was no pain, no sadness, no regret, only pure anticipation—like this was what “perfect” was, what everything in life, everything I had ever known, was all about. It was like I was being born again into a perfect and pure world. I realized death is not the opposite of life, it is the opposite of birth, and here I was—ready to meet God, fully alive and fully loved. I was so excited. And I knew there was one reason, and one reason only, I was going to heaven—because I had known Jesus and chosen Him as my Savior during my life on earth. That is all that mattered. I cannot emphasize that enough—all of my life, every decision, every action, every question—everything that I was, all came down to that one decision. Nothing else mattered, nothing—it was Christ and Christ alone.
I looked up again, or maybe I became more aware of where I was, and I suddenly saw my grandmother, Nannie, who had died when I was only six months old. I didn’t see her in human form, yet I immediately recognized her. She was a presence of great warmth and endless love. I never knew her in my life, but felt that somehow she had always been with me, as if there were some sort of lifelong bond that I only now understood. She was waiting at the entrance to heaven to take me in and was clearly thrilled to see me. I felt pure joy radiating from her. I looked at her and just shouted an excited, “Nannie!” I could not wait to be with her. Her presence was so loving and welcoming that I felt like I almost melted into her.
Just as I reached her, thoughts of my daughter, Meghan, who was only nine months old, suddenly filled my mind. I cried out her name. I began to panic, as I thought that Dann had died. I just felt so strongly that Meghan needed a mother; she needed me—I didn’t want her to be an orphan. I told Jesus and Nannie that I could not leave Meghan. I really wanted to go to heaven and start my new life—I wanted to feel all of God, all of His love and peace—but I couldn’t leave my baby. Nannie and Jesus became intensely serious. I knew I had to make a choice—and I had no time to dwell on it, it had to be instantaneous. Although every part of my soul seemed to yearn for God, something in me made me want to go back to Meghan. I just had to be her mother. I felt like the only reason I could go back was for love—my love for Meghan was so strong that somehow Jesus recognized that, and even more, He honored it by allowing me the choice to return. In the next instant I left Nannie, and Jesus began to take me back toward the scene of the wreck. Everything seemed almost as if it was a rewind of when I left the crash to go to heaven. The closer we got to earth, the heavier I felt. I had more and more pain, and my entire being felt worse. My Nannie’s warmth disappeared, and I felt cold. When the pain became intense, I suddenly knew I was back—“alive” again, back on earth.
When I came back to life on the side of the road, I looked up and found I was looking directly into the eyes of an angel. I knew in an instant that he was an angel—and he knew me. Somehow I knew he had saved me from dying in the burning car. Someone else physically pulled me from the car, but I know it only happened because the angel made it happen. I can’t explain how, I just know. He bent over me on the road, put his hand over my face, and healed me.
Specifically, I felt that he healed the burns on my face and neck through the power of Jesus. With all of my injuries, I knew that I could not withstand burns on my face. I think God knew I could not survive with burns—He knew it was more than I could bear. I know I was burned inside the car, and I know the power of Jesus healed me through my angel. I just felt His healing power surge through me, especially on my face. Then the angel told me, “Tracey, everything is going to be all right.”
As Tracey was “dying” in the car, Kyle Longwell was still trying to pull her free from the burning wreck. He reached in through the jagged hole between the door and the sunroof, and pulled her through the flames and out of the car—this time without any effort at all, as if the wreckage clutching Tracey’s legs suddenly released its grip.
He later told us, “A power came down on me, a strength that couldn’t have come from me.” Tracey was free.
They laid her down next to the car—her injuries apparent. After Tracey’s earthly life surged through her body, and the angel told her everything would be “all right,” he looked at the crowd and in slow, deliberate speech, said, “Take–care– of–Tracey.” Gimenez watched as the angel returned to the woods, seemingly absorbed in the shadows.
Neither Tracey nor I, nor anyone at the scene, had spoken our names, yet the angel clearly knew hers.