Woman catches fire following cigarette mishap

By Joanne Hammer
The Tribune-Star

Out of the corner of his eye, Gary Wallace saw smoke billowing from a car in a bank parking lot Tuesday morning.

To his horror, he saw a woman step out of the car in flames.

About 9 a.m., Helen Johnson, 78, had dropped a cigarette onto her lap while she was parked at Old National at 25th and Poplar streets, said patrolman John Gallion with the Terre Haute Police Department. Johnson’s clothes began to smolder and when she opened the car door to get out, the wind fueled the fire.

Wallace drove his truck up onto the curb, threw the woman on the ground and ripped off her charred jean jacket, Gallion said.

Johnson, who suffered second- and third-degree burns, was taken to Union Hospital and later flown by helicopter to Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis. She was listed in serious condition in the hospital’s burn unit, said Todd Harper, public relations coordinator with Wishard Health Services.

Gallion told the Tribune-Star that Wallace had saved the woman’s life. Wallace, 59, denied his actions were heroic and said he went to help her without thinking.

“It was reflex,” he said.

Wallace, who works as a maintenance supervisor at Meadowood Village Apartments, was headed to the complex to show someone an apartment.

His plans instantly changed when he saw Johnson next to her car, covered in flames. All he could think to do was throw her on the ground and roll her onto her stomach, he said. As Wallace called 911, other people stopped to help him take off some of her charred clothing.

“She was in shock but she was coherent,” Wallace said. “If she would have stayed in the car, it probably would have blown up.”

Wallace suffered second degree burns on his left hand and was treated and released from Union Hospital.

“I’ll be fine,” said Wallace, dismissing his injuries. “I’m worried about her.”

Joanne Hammer can be reached at (812) 231-4214 or joanne.hammer@tribstar.com.