Witnesses Describe the Attempt to Save Driver Trapped in Fiery Crash

Black smoke boils from the burning vehicle and surrounding vegetation.

Black smoke boils from the burning vehicle and surrounding vegetation. [Photo a commenter, Steve]

Will Johnson, a Garberville firefighter, was driving on Hwy 101 just south of Laytonville a little after 2 p.m. on Monday, November 5 when he and several other travelers driving through the area saw the aftermath of an accident. A BMW X3 which had been headed northbound had gone off the road, down an embankment, and smashed into a large tree.

“I was going southbound,” Johnson explained. “I looked over and saw a car crashed. There was a federal officer there trying to get someone out.” A young woman was there also. Johnson pulled over to the side of the road and grabbed his medical kit.

“I saw a whiff of smoke,” he said. “The young lady started yelling for fire extinguishers.”

Travelers began scrambling to grab extinguishers. Johnson said he tried to help get the driver out of the vehicle. “The officer had broken the window out,” he explained. So, Johnson tried to open the door but it wouldn’t move. “I hit the unlock button but the door was fairly damaged,” he explained.

“There were numerous other people trying to help,” he said. “There was a very nice young lady. She was doing everything she could…She was trying to get the doors open but they wouldn’t.”

Meanwhile, the smoke and then flames kept streaming out from under the hood. “At first it was in the front and then it was coming out from under the car,” Johnson explained.

Many people brought fire extinguishers. “At least 10 extinguishers…I was emptying them out,” Johnson said, but nothing that they had on site could stop the flames.

Another passerby, a trucker named Dean Crayton, described the scene, “Several passerby’s, a tribal police officer and myself did everything we possibly could to try and free this man from the wreckage and flames but we just could not get him out.”

Johnson noted that the flames kept getting worse. “It got to the point that the smoke and the flames were overwhelming,” he explained. In the midst of the confusion, a sound pierced the chaos. “I heard sirens,” he said, “And it gave me hope [that a fire engine with its powerful hoses had arrived] but it was an ambulance.”

Johnson said the fire kept growing. “The wind was not in our favor,” he explained. “It was blowing the flames right at us.”

Crayton said, “[The man] was trapped…It was a sad situation that left us all feeling helpless that we could not do more to save him…Prayers to his loved ones…I wish we could have done more.”

A cross marks the spot where the fiery crash took a person's life today.

A Cal Fire employee looks at the burned BMW beneath a cross from an earlier accident. [Photo provided by Joel Siebe was taken the day of the crash.]

When asked if he considered himself a hero, Garberville firefighter Will Johnson said, “No, I just did what needed to be done.”

When asked if the others who helped were heroes, he didn’t pause, “They definitely were. I’m used to it but for the average person to stop and get involved, that is pretty awesome.”

That may be true, but, as truck driver Dean Crayton said, “The sounds and chaos of the situation are something those there on scene will never forget…” —-whether they were officers, a young woman, truck drivers, or firefighters.

Press release from the California Highway Patrol:

On November 5, 2018, at approximately 1418 hours, a BMW X3 was being driven northbound on US-101, at an unknown rate of speed.  For reasons still under investigation, the male driver allowed his vehicle to travel off of the east roadway edge, down an embankment where it collided with a large tree.  The BMW became engulfed in flames after the collision.  Several passing motorists stopped at the scene and attempted to extricate the driver from the BMW but were unsuccessful due to the vehicle fire.  Upon the fire being extinguished, the driver was pronounced deceased at the scene.  The identity of the driver is unknown at this time and is pending investigation by the Mendocino County Coroner’s Office.

Personnel from the California Highway Patrol responded and assumed incident command.

Personnel from Cahto Tribal Police, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department, Cal-Fire, and Cal-Trans all responded and assisted at the scene.  Traffic was stopped in both directions briefly, then one way traffic control was conducted as emergency responders worked at the scene.

Alcohol and/or drugs as a factor in this collision is still under investigation.  This incident remains under investigation by the California Highway Patrol.

EarlierFiery Fatal Crash South of Laytonville









  • I hope he enjoyed the time he had on the planet and I hope he didn’t suffer much. RIP

    Please everybody, keep the needless speculation out of it. You weren’t there and if you have enough free the to speculate on others misfortune then you have enough time to put your phone down and volunteer for your community!

  • Only once was I at a similar situation. There were children involved but the doors could be opened and all were taken out of the car. Almost every single person who was drving by stopped to help, some more effectively than others. People did different things as they saw a need. Some climbed down to get people out, some got things like blankets or fire extinguishers from their cars. One lady carried a deceased child to one side, another covered the body. Others gave what aide they could to the injuried, moving them away from the fire as it spread. One took care of the dog. The first volunteer firefighter came to start fighting the fire. No one took charge, no one ordered anyone around. It all just happened.

    That ought make people more optimistic about humanity in general.

    Thanks to all those who took the initiative to help in this accident. You did yourself proud.

    • Thank you for sharing. It’s making me cry. But, it means a lot to know that people would help if they could. Prayers to everyone.

  • The planet needs more FFs ….. a salute to all involved.

  • The location is a few miles south of Laytonville, (not Willits) just a few hundred feet north of an area the locals call “Red Buck”.

    My thanks to Will and the people that tried to help, and my condolences to the grieving.

    Will is trained in fire fighting and extrication, but the new modern cars are built to contain the occupants, that insures their safety most of the time. Like seat belts, sometimes they save you and sometimes they hinder your chances of survival.

    This car was a “hybrid” which means that it had both electric power and gasoline on board, a bad combination.

    • Carry a seat belt cutter and a window smasher. New cars have a lot of electronics that stop working
      and can trap you.

      • Apparently the head rest in newer cars is supposed to remiveable so you can break car window with it. Don’t know for sure but this might be helpful in future situations

    • My error on the Willits. I had originally written something like “heading south of Laytonville towards Willits” then needed to change the line a little and…screwed up. FIxed it now.

  • Muddy Black Dodge

    Going to buy a fire extinguisher today. Hope I don’t have to use it. It’s kind of like have a life jacket, or for that matter an extra life jacket you can use on someone else… Too bad ambulances are required to have some extraction tools like a large crowd bar in their vans, and/or several fire extinguishers too. The are often at a accident before the fire trucks… That would have made all the difference in this incident…

  • Buy fire extinguishers for Christmas gifts this season.We should all have at least one in our vehicles.Seems like all involved did their 100% best. Blessings on all.

    • I can’t believe they were able to gather that many extinguishers. Way to be prepared people. I will be putting one in my truck tomorrow

  • I was talking to a local EMT after my son got into an accident at that same spot.
    He said it (accidents) always happens there.I asked caltrans about the safety evaluation for that
    section of road and he said they dont evaluate the safety unless someone dies.
    They got their wish…sad to say.

  • I hope they were completely unconscious. What a nightmare.

  • Many cars, including mine, lock the doors upon engaging the transmission into drive or reverse. I always unlock the doors immediately for this very reason. From fire to going under water, these stupid self-locking cars are a menace and treat us like idiots as if we can’t decide if we want to drive with the doors locked or unlocked. I’ve never understood this feature. Prayers and condolences to the loved ones.

  • So sad! Bless the people that helped. Prayers go out to everyone involved!

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