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At first glance, John Meffert thought the small plane was too low in the sky.

It was about 9:30 a.m. the Friday before last Fourth of July. Meffert was in Orange County, California, driving south on Interstate 405, one of America’s busiest highways, ahead of a big getaway weekend.

Investigators at the scene of a small plane crash on the southbound 405 Freeway. (Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Investigators at the scene of a small plane crash on the southbound 405 Freeway. (Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

With the John Wayne International Airport off to his right, Meffert kept driving as the twin engine Cessna continued its descent. Meanwhile, the pilot was radioing the airport tower. “297 mayday! We got mayday!” the pilot yelled to air traffic control. “I lost my right engine!”

“My second glimpse is, ‘I think this plane’s going to hit me,'” Meffert recalled. “And my third glimpse it is across the front of me, hitting me. All I see is maybe like a white flash.”

The wing of the plane skidded across the front of Meffert’s vehicle as the aircraft crashed onto the highway and burst into flames — just feet from the airport’s runway. Besides a small dent, the only other damage to Meffert’s SUV was a scrape from the left headlight to the one on the right.

From first hit to first responder

But Meffert, who happens to be a captain with the Avalon Fire Department on Catalina Island, wasn’t thinking about his car. He maintained control of his vehicle, backed up closer to the plane and pulled over to the side of the freeway. While he was concerned that the plane could blow up, he immediately started running toward it even though he wasn’t sure anyone could have survived the crash. “I felt like I needed to go see if everyone was okay,” Meffert remembered.

“It wasn’t until I saw the passenger,” he said. “Her head pops up on the passenger side just enough that I’m like, ‘there’s somebody alive.’ So I ran even faster and then I came from the tail section of the plane toward the passenger front.”

The woman was already outside trying to lift the pilot out through her door. He guided the woman toward the back of the plane where there wasn’t any fire and went back for the pilot.

“His butt was on the passenger seat and his legs were on the pilot side,” Meffert said. “I just came underneath his arms and said, ‘I am going to get you out of the plane.’ And I lifted him up and out.”

He then dragged the pilot away from the plane and to the side of the highway to begin rendering aid.

John Meffert is shown in an image from a press conference on June 30, 2017. (Credit: KTLA)
John Meffert is shown in an image from a press conference on June 30, 2017. (Credit: KTLA)

Of all the people the plane could have hit, there are few better qualified to help in an emergency situation than Meffert. Before becoming a firefighter, he served seven years in the United States Navy. He was stationed in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm, working in the intensive care unit on the hospital ship named Mercy.

After a tour in Japan, the 47 year old finished out his naval career in San Diego, working in acute care and emergency. With his years of experience, Meffert says he quickly switched into first responder mode, asking the couple questions to ascertain their injuries. “Both of them were pretty bloody,” Meffert said. “I was really amazed that there weren’t, like, more injuries to them.”

‘John was a hero’

Pilot Frank Pisano broke six bones in his back. His wife, Janan, broke five bones in hers; both are on the road to recovery. Frank has been flying for 27 years and had owned the aircraft involved in the accident for 10 years. He remembers opening his eyes right after the crash and seeing the wing on fire. He told his wife to get out of the plane. He, too, was afraid it was going to blow up. But his wife would not leave his side.

“He saved my life and my wife’s life because I know she would have stayed trying to help me,” Frank said. For the Pisanos, there’s no doubt Meffert went beyond the call of duty. “John was a hero. He went into a burning plane to save us,” Frank said.

In the minutes after the crash, several civilians stopped to offer help. In a video taken by one of the first people on the scene, there’s a man who took off his shirt to wrap around Janan’s bleeding head. A couple of nurses rendered first aid while other people tried to tame the fire until more first responders arrived. “People responded in such a way of giving a little bit of effort to try to stop something that was horrible,” Meffert said.

Lucky to be alive

It’s amazing that no one died. While a few vehicles drove into pieces of the plane on the highway, Meffert’s was the only one hit by the crashing aircraft — a fact made even more spectacular considering how busy the highway usually is, especially on a getaway weekend. Meffert knows how lucky they all are to be alive.

“I play all the ‘what ifs’ — going slower, going faster — it could have been a different turnout,” Meffert said, getting emotional. “We just had a lot of angels. So I feel very blessed that I was safe and able to render care to them.”