By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – Taylor Flanagan, a volunteer firefighter with Station 4, was still awake at 3 a.m. on July 22 when the emergency radio crackled in his home: A car had flown 20 feet off dark and winding Mail Road, landing upside down in a ravine and catching fire.
Flanagan, who lives nearby, jumped into his truck and raced to the scene.
Meanwhile, in another home off Mail Road, Lt. Scott Gavitt and his son, Scott Jr., were asleep but they, too, quickly heeded the call.
First at the scene, Flanagan could see from the road that the car was ablaze.
“It was fully involved,” he says of the horrific scene. Bystanders couldn’t tell him if anyone was trapped in the car and the raging flames prevented him from making a determination from a safe distance. Flanagan scaled down the ravine.
“I went 10 feet to the bottom of the embankment but I [still] couldn’t see him. I looked in the window and couldn’t see him for the smoke. I yelled, ‘Is anybody in there?’ Then I saw his hand sticking through the smoke. I asked him to move to the back” and try to break the window from the inside but he was unable to.
Meanwhile, as the special tool Flanagan was using to try and break the passenger-side window snapped off in his hand, the Gavitts showed up.
“Kick it in!” commanded Lt. Gavitt. And so he did.
As the Gavitts, senior and junior, fought the fire with hand-held extinguishers that they carry with them, Flanagan worked to pull Dan Lennon, 22 and unconscious, to safety.
Laboring in the dark without protective gear or the heavy equipment available on the fire truck – which Deputy Chief Curt Varone drove to the scene eight minutes later – the trio followed their training in an extremely dangerous situation.
What would be a remarkable story at face value has an even more extraordinary twist: While Lt. Scott Gavitt is an adult with many years of active duty, Taylor Flanagan, a firefighter for only eight months, is 18; Junior Firefighter Scott Gavitt Jr. is 14.
Lennon, the man whose life they saved, is an Exeter-West Greenwich High School graduate who recently earned a degree in film from the University of Rhode Island with an emphasis on documentaries. While he prepares a presentation film – a sort of visual resume to show people in the industry – he supports himself with restaurant and construction jobs.
The car he was driving was a 2000 Buick which had belonged to his late grandfather.
Lennon, who suffered a concussion for which he was treated at Kent County Hospital, says he only remembers the accident in flashes.
“The biggest thing I remember is swerving left [to avoid] an animal and I remember being upside down. Then I was completely knocked out; the firefighter [Flanagan] woke me up.”
He says Flanagan was yelling at him to break the window and that’s the last thing he heard before he blacked out.
“I can’t stress how lucky I feel,” Lennon adds. “If I’d landed 100 feet further in the field, maybe the neighbors wouldn’t have heard me. It’s been tough to come to terms with it.”
He feels humbled by the firefighters’ selflessness.
“It’s hard to put into words to show my gratitude,” says Lennon. “There’s no monetary value you can put on a person’s life. Those three men are the reason I’m standing here. The incredible thing is they’re volunteers. It’s a miracle, really.
“It’s made me think of doing things for other people – paying it forward.”
The elder Gavitt is taking it all in stride.
“It feels good,” he admits. “I was doing what I’m trained to do.” He adds that, while he’s never pulled anyone from a burning car, he once saved a dog from a burning house and he’s used the jaws of life to free someone trapped inside a vehicle.
Gavitt Jr., a student at EWG High School, is pretty quiet on the best of days but he says that while it was his first time being involved in such a dramatic rescue, he just followed his dad’s lead.
Patty Whitford, clerical assistant in the Exeter town clerk’s office, is especially proud. The Gavitts, senior and junior, are her son and grandson.
“My son’s been a firefighter since he was 14,” she says; “the same as Scott Jr.” She adds that although he can’t be on the truck until he’s 14, Kurt Gavitt – who is about to turn 12 – is eager to follow in the footsteps of his dad and brother.
“He goes down to the station for work night on Mondays.”
Taylor Flanagan is still trying to process his role in what has become the town’s most talked-about happy ending.
“It’s the first person I’ve saved. Ever. It’s an overwhelming feeling.”
Things got more overwhelming Monday as proud family members, well-wishers and pretty much the whole fire department packed the Town Council chamber to see the seasoned veteran and two teens receive three commendations acknowledging their bravery and heroism. Wave after wave of applause greeted the acknowledgements: The honors came from the council at the recommendation of Fire Chief David Chamberlain, State Fire Marshal Jack Chartier and the RI State Senate represented by Sen. Frank Maher (R-Exeter.)
Each award recognized that the three had risked their lives.
Among those speaking from the audience were Rodman Jordan, a 45-year-veteran of the fire department, and Jim Erinakes, newly-appointed superintendent of the Exeter-West Greenwich School District. He noted that young Scott Gavitt is a student at EWG and said, “We are all aware of your actions and the high school, school committee and administrative team are very proud.”
After proclaiming the town to be “very fortunate, a lucky community” to have such devoted volunteers, Councilman Calvin Ellis led a standing ovation.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .