As the flames inched closer to Richard Broccolo, the Winter Garden resident who spent nearly 42 years in fire service thought of the irony of the situation as he waited for someone to pull him from his overturned and burning car.
His life would be saved that day by a teenager working nearby.
Now, nearly two years after the incident took place, Corey Purinton — the man Broccolo calls a hero — is receiving a Carnegie Medal, the highest civilian honor for heroism.
Broccolo, then 62, was returning from a golf outing with friends Aug. 23, 2020, when his car went off the road on a stretch of State Road 429 close to his home in Summerlake.
What happened next is a combination of what he remembers and what witnesses and family told him.
“I felt that I went off the edge of the road,” Broccolo said. “Within a split second — this is what was told to me — my tire blew, I saw a puff of dirt, and that’s all I saw. I woke up in the car a minute or so later groggy because I had a concussion … I broke my scapula in half, tore my labrum in my left shoulder, broke every rib on the left side, and that punctured my left lung, (and) one rib on right side that punctured a lung. I guess they said I had a DVT (deep vein thrombosis) behind my knee.”
His car rolled several times and came to rest on its roof against a chain-link fence and with its back end about four feet in the air.
When he awoke, he was in pain and unable to move much because of his injuries.
“I heard a pop and fizz, and I looked through the broken glass — and I saw flames,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t good.’ I know from experience that the fire would take four to five minutes to get to the cabin.”
As he lied on the interior roof of his car, he saw the rear window was broken out but couldn’t get to it. He knew his only way out was for someone to pull him out.
“But no one came,” he said. “About four minutes later, the interior is cooking. I’m hearing the pop and the crack. … The fire was in the car. I could feel the heat on my legs. … I have about one minute. I made peace with this. I thought of the irony of doing this for 42 years and this is how I’m going to go out.”
And then he saw Purinton’s face.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to help me; I’m going to give you my arm, and, no matter how hard I scream, keep pulling,’” Broccolo recalled.
He was later told he screamed and then passed out.
Purinton inhaled smoke and suffered burns to his hands and has recovered.
“Next thing I knew, I was being dragged on the ground in extreme pain,” Broccolo said. “I was like 198 (pounds) at the time, so pretty difficult to pull that weight out. … My back was in flames. The only thing I remember is barely talking to the paramedic. I heard a firefighter turn the nozzle, I heard the water, I heard the helicopter, I felt the wind.”
Broccolo was transported to a trauma center, where doctors didn’t expect him to survive the first night. After the third day, they began the tedious and painful process of surgery and skin grafts.
About 30% of his body suffered burns — from his big toe on his right foot to his left shoulder, his left buttocks, elbow, the back of his lower left leg and lower right ankle, and the small of his back all the way up to his shoulder blades. The left side was burned significantly; the right side of his back wasn’t burned as badly.
Skin grafts were made using tissue from both of his thighs.
After his hospital stay, Broccolo, by then 35 pounds lighter, went to a rehabilitation facility, where he had to relearn how to walk and perform other tasks. He went home Oct. 7.
Broccolo has had multiple laser surgeries and is scheduled for four more. This works on the burn scars, giving his skin more elasticity and reducing the pain.
“It’s hurt 24/7 for almost a year and a half now,” he said.
Broccolo and his family had the opportunity to meet Purinton, a laborer from Homosassa, and enjoy a meal together.
“I thanked him from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “People say, ‘It wasn’t really anything and it wasn’t heroic.’ People like me, in the fire service and the police, when we see what they actually do, that’s what’s actually a hero. (I told Corey), ‘I was three seconds from me dying, and you came in and saved me when others didn’t. That’s what we call going above and beyond what anyone would normally do.’
“This is what you saved me for – my kids and grandkids,” Broccolo told Purinton, who was 19 at the time of the crash. “I’m still in their life and get to spend another day on earth.”
Purinton is among 17 citizens who risked their lives for others and will receive the Carnegie bronze medal. Broccolo said Orange County Fire Rescue could be honoring Purinton as well.
“If he wasn’t here, I would have died,” Broccolo said. “Nobody else came to help me. He’s the hero, and I’m really proud of him and thankful he did it. I’d like to see Corey get the recognition he deserves.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.