The Delhi teen who was badly burned in a fiery crash last weekend has undergone skin graft surgery and has months of recovery and rehabilitation ahead of him.
Ramon Gonzalez, 19, suffered second- and third-degree burns on his legs, arms and face when on June 4, while on his way to work at Foster Farms in Turlock, his vehicle veered right and left northbound Highway 99. He crossed the Lander Avenue on-ramp and rolled down an embankment. The vehicle careened through a chain-link fence and wound up in a grass area east of the freeway, where it caught fire.
Jose Bernabe-Mendoza, along with his wife and their 2-year-old child, had just got gas at the nearby Arco AM/PM and were headed back toward the freeway when they saw smoke. They rounded the corner to the onramp, where they were met with a wall of flames.
Bernabe-Mendoza said he pulled over, got out of his car and called 911.
He said two women also had stopped and were standing nearby when he heard one of them scream that there was a man in the fire.
He said he hung up the phone and ran toward the fence Gonzalez’s vehicle had crashed through. He jumped over with the help of one of the women. He went to Gonzalez and pulled him about four feet from the fire, then began rolling him back and forth to put out the flames on his pants and shirt.
Bernabe-Mendoza said he is in liver failure and is on a transplant list. His failing liver causes extreme fatigue, but he said of his strength on that night, “The only way I can describe it is like the strength of a parent who lifts a car off their child.”
“I still can’t believe that was me,” Bernabe-Mendoza said. “I can’t run, yet I was sprinting. I can’t jump, yet I was leaping.”
He had extinguished the fire on Gonzalez’s shirt, but his pants were still on fire so he tried to remove them. Gonzalez wasn’t wearing shoes and his feet were completely burned, Bernabe-Mendoza said.
Around this time, Gonzalez became somewhat alert and threw Bernabe-Mendoza off of him and started walking back toward the fire.
“He grabbed me and tossed me to the side, easily,” Bernabe-Mendoza said. “As soon as I landed, I bounced back up and ran back toward him.”
Bernabe-Mendoza said he struggled with Gonzalez, trying to prevent him from walking back into the fire. Bernabe-Mendoza thought Gonzalez might have been trying to get back to other people in the car, but there was no one else.
Gonzalez’s sister, Jess Focks, said Gonzalez had suffered a seizure that nearly killed him a year ago. She said the crash and why Gonzalez let his vehicle leave the roadway remains under investigation but the family speculates he might have had another seizure. Focks said her brother has no recollection of the event.
Bernabe-Mendoza said that while he struggled with Gonzalez, there were three explosions.
“I looked to the left and saw one of the wheels completely ignited,” Bernabe-Gonzalez. “It was rolling and it was ... leaving a trail of fire (in its path).”
He said it rolled behind them, leaving them inside a ring of fire.
Gonzalez overpowered Bernabe-Mendoza and began pulling him toward the fire with him. Bernabe-Mendoza pulled himself free, falling backward onto the ground, where he hit his head.
“When I sat up, he was already in the fire by the car,” Bernabe-Mendoza said. “At that point I realized I was surrounded by fire; there was one little gap I could get out.”
He went through and back to the fence where the same woman who helped him get over the first time helped him come back. Bernabe-Mendoza said he and the woman held each other and cried because they were convinced Gonzalez was dead.
Dramatic video taken by witnesses on either side of the fire shows Gonzalez stumbling into the fire then coming out the other side and collapsing.
Two bystanders and a police officer then rushed in and dragged him to a parking lot along the grass.
In the video on the side Bernabe-Mendoza came from, he can be heard crying and saying, “I tried, I tried.”
Gonzalez was taken to Doctors Medical Center for treatment, then transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he remains in the intensive care unit. Bernabe-Mendoza also was taken to a hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.
Focks said her parents have been driving back and forth from Delhi to Sacramento every day, sometimes twice a day, to be with Gonzalez. They cannot afford to stay in a hotel, she said.
Focks established a GoFuneMe account to help pay for their travel and medical expenses. To donate go to www.gofundme.com/ramongonzalezfund.
Focks said her brother has asked to look in a mirror but his family has told him it’s best not to yet because his face is still swollen from the burns. He remains sedated most of the time and cannot move his legs for two weeks after the surgery, which was on Wednesday. Once his skin heals, Focks said, Gonzalez will need months of therapy to regain the strength in his legs.
Focks said she was in a major accident 10 years ago and her biggest regret was not finding the people who helped her. So she tracked down Bernabe-Mendoza, who said he would be happy to meet Gonzalez when he is better.