Jack Neuenburg watched as gasoline splashed across the windshield.
The fuel tanker and his four-door Toyota RAV4 were melting next to each other after colliding just after 4 p.m. Nov. 13 on westbound Interstate 80 in Sparks. The 20-year-old was trapped in his car, wedged between the burning tanker and the guardrail.
Neuenburg’s car filled with black smoke from the flames just outside his window. He got the passenger-side window down less than halfway before the car’s electrical system went out.
“Help,” Neuenburg screamed as it got harder to see. His glasses were somewhere, broken. They’d be found later in the front seat, melted from the heat of the fire.
He climbed to the back seat as everything became hot to touch and metal burned his arms and fingers.
“It felt like my body was pressed up against a stove,” he said.
Using a glass smasher he keeps attached to a small pocketknife, Neuenburg used all his body weight to slam up against the back window. It didn’t budge.
“After the glass breaker fails, my brain just kind of checked out,” Neuenburg said. “That’s it. I’ve done everything I can.”
A stranger comes to save the man trapped inside
A hundred yards away, across Victorian Square in Sparks, an electrician working on the outdoor concert venue at the Nugget Casino Resort watched.
When the RAV4’s gas tank exploded, it seemed certain whoever was in there was dead.
But Neuenburg screamed for help one more time.
The electrician heard him. He grabbed a fire extinguisher from the job site and ran across Victorian Square, up a dirt hill to the freeway and through a break in a metal fence.
When he got to the car, he couldn’t see Neuenburg, but he stuck the fire extinguisher hose in the half-open window and started spraying.
Neuenburg, desperate for air, stuck his head out the window as he was being sprayed with the fire retardant.
“Dude, you’re halfway out. Let’s go, go, go,” the electrician told him.
Somehow Neuenburg shimmied out.
A humble hero and a miracle
It took a day for Neuenburg’s mother, Adryenn Ashley, to figure out what happened as she frantically booked a flight from her home in Florida to get to her son in the hospital.
The story was all over the news after the collision closed I-80 for five hours. Fire crews had worked to avoid a massive explosion. Strangers posted videos from the accident, and Ashley started piecing together how her son escaped.
When she heard about the stranger who ran to her son’s car, she used social media to find the man she nicknamed the humble hero.
Five days after the accident, after Neuenburg was released from the hospital, the two families met at a pizza shop in Sparks. From the window, the two families could see where the accident happened.
The stranger, father to a 1-year-old son, is a local electrician who was contracted to work at the Nugget’s new concert venue that day.
Over and over again, he insisted he wasn’t a hero, according to both mother and son.
“He didn’t want any credit. He does not want a reward,” Ashley said. “But I feel like I have to do something. Can I start a college fund for his son or help him get his dream job?”
But the humble hero didn’t waiver.
“It’s what anyone would do,” he told them.
But to Neuenburg and Ashley it was much more.
“There are too many statistical anomalies all in a row that led to my son not being burned alive,” Ashley said.
Now, nearly two months since the accident, Neuenburg’s burns have almost healed. He is still being treated for smoke damage to his lungs.
“It’s a miracle in every way,” Ashley said.
The Reno Gazette Journal reached out to the company where the electrician works. The owner confirmed the man wants to remain anonymous. He doesn’t want any credit or to be interviewed.
“What if that was my wife and kid in that car?” he told Neuenburg and Ashley that day at the pizza place. “I’d want someone to help.“