Chauffeur Paul Hershey had popped into the Long Beach 7-Eleven between fares on Friday when he suddenly looked outside to see a man in flames, trapped in the driver's seat of a truck. Hershey, a former Air Force officer from Redondo Beach, said he felt stunned as he ran outside to help.
"He looked like he was sitting in a fireplace," Hershey recalled Monday of the victim, who was injured on Friday afternoon. The man was identified Monday as Jerry Payne, 63, of Long Beach, when his death was announced.
"I am so very, very, sorry for their loss," Hershey, 54, said of the Payne family, to whom he wanted to express, "I did what I could."
It was about 5:15 p.m. at the convenience store at Clark Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway when, the Long Beach Police Department said, Payne returned to his truck after making a purchase at the 7-Eleven. After Payne got behind the wheel, a man threw flammable liquid into the cab, intentionally setting him on fire.
KABC-TV has reported witnesses as saying that Payne refused a panhandler, who then threw the liquid into the man's truck. Police have not confirmed that version, but did arrest Raymond Sean Clark, described as a 38-year-old transient. Clark was jailed and will likely now be charged with murder, said Long Beach Police Sgt. Aaron Eaton.
Hershey said he didn't see what preceded the incident as he bought a honeybun, iced coffee, water and a newspaper. Someone in line behind him hollered that a truck was on fire just outside the door, and that the driver was trapped inside.
Hershey said he is proud to have stepped up to help, but views it "as just what you do." He said he may have appeared calm, still in his shiny black shoes and chauffeur's uniform, "but inside, I'm not." The following is his story:
"I could see the flames, and the driver's still inside. ... I was trying to figure out how to open the truck door ... and this guy comes into my view and reached out ... and popped it open.
"You could actually see him in the driver's side, totally up in flames. Imagine [someone] sitting in a big fireplace, covered in flames. His skin's peeling off of him. It was grim; this was not pleasant, he was moaning, not screaming, probably in shock. We just managed to help him out, someone was shouting 'Roll him! Roll him!' I ran into the 7-Eleven and said, 'Call 9-1-1 and make sure you ask for an ambulance.' "
Hershey said he then ran back out, and he and the other rescuer helped a standing but stumbling Payne to roll on the ground. But the fire continued to burn. Hershey said there was something flammable on Payne because they couldn't put out the flames easily.
Hershey used the newspaper he'd just purchased to beat out the flames, apologizing to Payne the whole time, as someone fetched water to pour on the man, whose face was heavily swollen.
"I was whacking away on him and I said, 'I'm sorry.' His skin was peeling off in big strips, brownish, pink skin underneath. He must have been in screaming, mad pain but in shock."
"We helped him walk to the edge of the building," Hershey continued. "We couldn't stop him, he got up, sort of stumbled away, we kind of. ... his hair's gone, his eyebrows were gone, the cops get there, and. ... that's when they realized they were there not for a car fire, but someone was being burned."
Once officers arrived, Hershey said he reported where he was to his office. He had been en route to the 405 Freeway northbound in a Lincoln Town Car when he had stopped for a road snack.
"I did this in my shiny black shoes, shirt and tie. I had just dropped two clients off," said Hershey.
He said the truck Payne occupied was green, and once the burning man was freed from the driver's seat, he and his fellow good Samaritan could see that "he was big, at least 6 feet tall, 250 pounds." He said both Payne and the arrested homeless man were black.
There was a "big black plume of smoke, and all these people watching what's going on," Hershey said. "In a crowd of 100, you only get two people to step up."
Hershey said he had no medic training but had trained as a lifeguard as a teenager, and has taken lifesaving classes while an Earth science-geology college major. He has been out of the military for some 20 years, but in the end, he said, "You quickly decide you are either going to do what you need to do or watch."
Saddened to learn of Payne's death, Hershey hopes that he can somehow connect with his fellow good Samaritan from the rescue, to find some saving grace.