An Off-Duty Trained Firefighter Medic and ER Nurse Rushed to Save a Woman From a Burning Car on New Year’s Day

Real-life car accidents aren’t like the movies. When car accidents happen nearby, you wouldn’t be alone in freezing up, unsure of what to do. Even if you feel an immediate urge to help, chances are you’re not suddenly going to spring into action and rescue people as you see on Chicago Fire or 9-1-1. That is, unless you are an off-duty trained professional, like Courtney Barcellos, who, along with several bystanders, was able to save a young girl from a burning car crash on New Year’s Day.

A fatal burning car crash on New Year’s Day

Burning car during New Year's Eve in Marseille, France
Burning car during New Year’s Eve | Gerard Bottino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

​It’s not the way you expect to spend New Year’s Day – behind the wheel of a car in bumper-to-bumper traffic because of a car crash. But that’s precisely what happened to Courtney Barcellos and her girlfriend on the very first day of 2022.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, at around 3:00 am, Barcellos brought their car to an abrupt stop at the GA-400 South ramp to I-85 South in Atlanta, Georgia. Several cars ahead of them was a Toyota Scion that had struck a concrete barrier, overturned, and caught fire.

While some passersby stopped to record the incident, a young man smashed out the window of the burning car with a fire extinguisher, while others tried to pull the car’s occupants to safety. They were able to pull the passenger, Kelsey Chanthraboutda, out of the Scion. Unfortunately, they could not pull out the driver, Kealani Borba, who died at the scene. With a crowd forming around Kelsey, Barcellos and her girlfriend jumped into action.

Trained professionals were already at the scene

Luckily for Kelsey Chanthraboutda, Courtney Barcellos is a trained firefighter medic and had her trauma bag with her. On top of that, her girlfriend has been an ER nurse for more than 10 years. While dealing with a burning car crash isn’t likely wanted to spend their New Year’s Day, it’s fortunate they happened by the accident when they did.

Their training kicked in, and both of them got to work. Barcellos’ girlfriend immediately checked for a pulse and began doing chest compressions. Assessing her condition, Barcellos tried to get Kelsey to respond to the sound of her voice. When that did not work, Barcellos’ girlfriend started performing a sternum rub, which is a painful stimulus field medics use when a victim does not respond to verbal stimuli.

They were able to rouse her, though Kelsey could only recall her first name. They kept her awake until EMS arrived. Barcellos and her girlfriend were able to transfer Kelsey to the care of on-duty emergency responders. As per 11Alive, Kelsey was taken to Grady Hospital in stable condition, doubtless due to the actions of the Good Samaritans on the scene.

The work of the first responders saved lives

While the AJC reported that Kelsey Chanthraboutda suffered from second and third-degree burns requiring skin grafts to treat, she might not be alive if it were not for those who helped out that evening. That brave group that helped Kelsey escape from the burning car included trained professionals.

Still, while some untrained civilians leapt into action, doing so isn’t always advisable. “It’s ok to just keep going if you’re not going to do anything,” said Barcellos to a reporter of the incident. People stopping just to watch “actually makes it more dangerous, and it makes it worse.”

While drivers who cause accidents must stay at the scene and render reasonable aid, witnesses are under no legal obligation to do so, as per the Law Firm of Aaron Herbert, P.C. In fact, if they aren’t trained emergency responders, witnesses can hurt themselves or the very people they want to help. Still, just because a bystander has stopped doesn’t necessarily mean they should be recording either.

“[D]on’t forget that that person you’re recording, that car that’s on fire, that you don’t know if somebody got out of or not,” said Barcellos. When you record an accident and post it, keep in mind you could be recording someone’s last moments. “That’s someone’s family, that could be your family in there.”

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