Newbern man rescues toddler from flaming wreck

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 3, 2005

Most days Bobby Graham leads a simple life. Last Friday, January 28, it would have suited him if nothing changed.

Graham lives with his wife, Brenda, just south of Newbern off Alabama Highway 61. On weekdays he wakes up and puts on his navy blue work uniform–the one with “Bobby” written in script across the patch on its right shoulder. He walks across the highway to Stillwater Machine, where he works. And when his shift ends he walks home and gets ready to do it again the next day.

Until last Friday, Bobby Graham was like any other ordinary man, content to get by making a decent living.

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“I was busy fitting a goose-neck ball into a truck,” he said of that day. “I heard a big smash, and went to look, and a car had caught fire and went in the field [just across from Stillwater].

Two cars, traveling full-speed in dreary weather, had collided head-on. The view Graham witnessed from Stillwater was one he won’t soon forget.

“I didn’t know anyone was still in [the car],” he said. “I grabbed a fire extinguisher and went down there, at that time by myself.”

The scene Graham approached was one of chaos.

“There were parts of one car all over the road, and there was a girl laying there, in the middle of the road,” said Graham.

Thinking he could do more for any passengers trapped in the fiery car than for the girl, Graham sprinted across the highway, where an unidentified motorist had already stopped to help.

“There was a man already down there,” he said. “He told me there was a baby in the back seat. There were two people in the front seat…he was trying to get the father out. The car was filled with smoke. You couldn’t see anything in it.”

The absence of cries for help told Graham just how serious the situation was.

“When I first got there,” he said, “there was no sound at all coming out of the car. I jumped in the back seat and felt around. I felt the car seat and tried to pull it out, but it didn’t move. I felt around some more and there was no baby in the seat. The straps were fastened, but there was no baby.”

“Somehow it got out of the car seat and into the floorboard,” he said. “I felt around the whole back seat ’til I found its leg, and then I got its waist and pulled it out.”

By this time most of the Stillwater Machine workers had arrived to help.

“We went back for the Momma and the Daddy, but there was nothing we could do,” Graham said. Although the father was freed from the car when “three or four of us grabbed a hold of him,” according to Graham, he had already passed on. “They were already dead,” he said “The impact had done it all.”

Efforts to free the mother were unsuccessful. “The driver door had been smashed back behind the passenger door. The dash was all around her legs.” He shakes his head. “There was just nothing we could do.”

Those victims have since been identified as Raymond and Tonia Baker, 33 and 27 respectively, of Uniontown. Contrary to speculation, the “girl in the middle of the road,” later identified as Southern Academy student Julie Foster, was unconscious throughout the rescue.

“We heard rumors she was supposed to be screaming and hollering,” said Graham. “But when I first saw her, laying in the road, I thought she was dead.”

After making sure the child was all right and in good hands, Graham checked on Foster. “Right after I got there she started to wake up. I looked down and said ‘Help is on the way.'”

Fortunately for the child, which to Brenda Graham’s understanding is recuperating at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, help had already arrived in the form of Bobby.

“I’m so proud,” said Brenda. “Someday that baby is going to grow up and want to know who the man is who saved his life. I’m going to be proud to say it’s Bobby.”

There may be others in Newbern and at Stillwater equally proud to tell the world about Graham’s selflessness, but they don’t include Graham himself.

“I’ll tell you what I told everybody else,” he said. “I’m not a hero. And I damn sure ain’t no savior. I just saw a job that had to be done, and I did it.”

Graham’s wife, however, disagrees with her husband’s opinion.

“There’s a reason that that accident happened where it did,” Brenda said. “There’s a reason it happened next to Stillwater, where there are so many people willing to help. I told Bobby, ‘You were that child’s guardian angel.’ He doesn’t like for me to tell him this,” she says, turning to her husband, “but you ARE a hero.”

Graham just shakes his head. It’s past 6, but he still wears his Stillwater uniform, oil-stained from his day at work. Maybe to his wife, maybe to the child and its relatives, his effort Friday was a heroic act. But it was just “a job that had be done” to him.

Which may explain why Bobby Graham did it so well.