“Exceptional Bravery and Courage”: How Teens Saved 2 Lives in Harrowing Palm Coast Wreck
FlaglerLive | April 5, 2012
Flagler County Sheriff Don Flemming summed it up the meaning of Cody Decker and Luke Vaughn’s heroism succinctly this morning: “This is an outstanding example of our youth in America today. Seventeen years old, to have that kind of character, to have that kind of courage, to put their own life in jeopardy, I think they need to be commended here today,” Fleming said. “If this is an example of our generation of young, our future generations are in very good hands.”
Fleming was referring to what Cody and Luke had done at 1 a.m. Tuesday, when, by sheer luck and thanks to an unresponsive gate at Canopy Walk, they witnessed the violent, fiery crash of a Jaguar on Palm Coast Parkway, ran to the scene, and managed to pull out Carlos Adams, 42, and his girlfriend Tracy Lopez, 44, from the burning mass. Absent Cody’s and Luke’s presence—and presence of mind, and courage, and poise—the two victims, who remain at Halifax Hospital, would have most likely burned alive.
All this as Cody and Luke were vacationing here for spring break with Cody’s parents, from DeWitt, Mich.
Earlier today at the Veterans of Foreign War hall in Palm Coast, Fleming, Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle (who recognized the work of Stations 24 and 21)`, members of the Florida Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office, along with families of the victims and the saviors, took part in a moving ceremony that culminated with Fleming awarding the two young men a Life Saving Award. The award, Fleming told the young men, is “in recognition of the exceptional bravery and courage demonstrated when you witnessed the single-vehicle crash into trees in Palm Coast, Florida. Your quick response to the scene demonstrated your compassion for others, as you fervently worked to free to victims trapped in a burning vehicle.”
The word “heroism” is often thrown around loosely, cheapening its meaning and aggrandizing its recipients. Not in this case. You could sense that when Fleming described it as “a privilege and an honor for me to be here to start off this ceremony with two young gentlemen,” he wasn’t exaggerating. If anything, the words and honors could not possibly be commensurate with the deeds of the two men—who are, at 17, unquestionably men.
Their own description of the minutes of that morning, as humble as it is harrowing, not to mention occasionally humorous, makes the point. Editing it would be an offense to the record of their remarkable accomplishment:
Cody: “We were returning a movie that night at Winn Dixie, and we got tired of the movie, wanted to go to bed, so cut it like a half hour short, so we brought it to Winn Dixie”
Luke: “Taco Bell, don’t forget that.”
Cody: “Yeah, we got Taco Bell, too. I love that Dorrito taco. So we got back.
Audio: Luke’s Call to 911
Luke: “So when we got back, we pulled into Canopy Walk, the gated community. We had a key code that we were supposed to use, but it wasn’t exactly working, so we kind of looked like we were breaking into this gated community in Florida, which looked kind of bad. He jumped the fence, and he’s sitting there, waving his arms to activate the sensors so we could get our car in, and it’s not working. And I’m sitting in the car like, not thinking, at 1 in the morning, we can’t, you know, go to sleep, and this is kind of ridiculous. And then, I guess it was a Jaguar, just flies by, I don’t know, 80 miles an hour, so we did a double take to each other—like, people racing in Florida? Is this a common deal? And we’re expecting more people, and they just flew by, then we heard a huge crash. I mean you could hear the shock of it, like a firework going off. So I immediately dialed 911 and he started sprinting down there.”
Cody: “I sprinted down there, I got there first, and there’s another guy there, and he walks up and he’s like, these people are dead. I was just—wow. Then we sat there about five seconds, and we heard moaning come from the passenger side. We instantly sprinted to the other side, and me and him both grabbed the door, tried to jerk, yanking it open, but it wouldn’t budge. That’s when Luke got there. He’s talking on the phone. And the door frame for the window is slightly open, and me and the guy in the Marine shirt tried to open it, but we couldn’t get it, that’s when I yelled at Luke to get off the phone and help us out.”Luke: “So I told the emergency operator that I have to go. I mean, these people are burning. I mean, he’s like, OK, he’s trying to walk me through it and told me to come down. I said I can’t come down, I’m running to an accident scene, I’m panting, adrenaline’s pumping. It’s wild. So I got there, I said I have to put the phone down, I need to help out, so he says OK, get back on with me. So we took the window door frame and we just, we tried opening it, and we just ended up just banging it down to meet the other door, and we were able to get Tracy, was it?”
Luke: “We were able to get Tracy out safely and lay her down. She had blood all over her face, and it looked like she probably hit the dash, and then Carlos’s legs were actually, the car hit the tree and wrapped around in a way where his legs were pinned inside of the vehicle. The dash rolled onto it, so the fire was coming then, and his foot was actually burned. So we were able to get underneath his arms and just, I mean—it was all we had just to rip him out and drag his legs out and get him to safety. At that point the car really just caught fire more, and it just kind of burst. The flames just escalated. You know, as we were getting them out, you could see it, the smoke pouring in, and just pure helplessness, and two people begging for their lives is something we’ll never forget. We were able to get them to safety as, I don’t know who got there first, but one of the officers got there and was able to help us drag them there, assess the situation, and from that point emergency hung up with us, and the rest of the crew got there and were able to take care of things.”
No one knows what would have happened if Cody and Luke had had the right key code for the gate at Canopy Walk, though it’s not difficult to guess.“I have no idea what my mom and her boyfriend were doing driving at that time, or what Codie and Luke were doing, driving at that time,” Jessica Lopez, Tracy’s oldest daughter—who calls Carlos her stepfather—said, before hearing the saviors’ fuller story. “But for them to be at the same place, at the same time, I thought—it’s a miracle, like, there’s no other way to put it.” She added: “If it wasn’t for them being where they were, at the moment that they were, we’d be attending two funerals rather than a few hospital visits. So that’s a miracle, really.”
Tracy Lopez is no longer in intensive care. She’s healing and she’s in good spirits, but she has several broken bones.
“We keep calling these guys heroes, and they are heroes, but to us,” Carlos Adams’s mother, Emma, said, “they were angels and they are angels sent from god, and I understand they’re just like, what’s all this going on? But no matter what with Carlos, Tracy’s doing good, she’s got broken bones and stuff, but she’s doing good, we talk to her every day. Carlos is an hour by hour, and it’s in god’s hands.
She addressed Cody and Luke: “I want you guys to know that when we got to the trauma unit, Carlos, nothing’s wrong with his brain or his head, we were able to talk to him for one hour in the trauma unit, at Halifax, before they could get him into surgery. So whatever happens, we were able to tell each other we love you Carlos, he’s telling us we love you, and just for that, you have given us another chance to tell each other how much we love him, and you guys, I pray and I give you god’s mercy, you were sent here for a reason, for such a time as this, and you will hear more from us. I know you’ve got to go back to DeWitt, but just gave you a card, but we’ll be doing some other things and you’ll be hearing from us. But you guys, I love you, and no matter what—” applause and emotion overcame the moment.
Cody’s parents, Larry and Lee Ann Decker, were also at the ceremony. They’d been woken up at 1:30 Tuesday morning by a call from their son. That was after the wreck, after the moment of heroism. “We didn’t get a lot of details until the next morning,” Cody’s mother said, “and they kind of, little by little layer by layer, they were in shock. I don’t think they wanted me to know everything they did. They don’t want us to know that the flames were 10, 12 feet high, that the people were calling for help. So little by little we kept hearing more and more.”
Later, speaking at the ceremony, Lee Ann Decker spoke of the way Cody and Luke had been raised with Christian values, “so when you speak about god having a hand in this, I definitely believe in it.” Still, she continued, “I’m not sure I would have had the calmness and the strength to do what they did with the car burning.”
“I think,” she concluded, “they’ve learned how fragile life can be.”