U.S. Marine Sgt. Matthew Sullivan poses for a portrait near the spot on Interstate 85 where he helped rescue a burning man from his vehicle. Sullivan, who has been deployed abroad multiple times, is currently a recruiter at the Marines’ Buford sub-station. (Special Photo: Sgt. Courtney White)
BUFORD — Sgt. Matthew Sullivan was enjoying his drive down Interstate 85 last Sunday afternoon, basking in the beautiful weather and the relief of a task complete. Multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, the day’s trip to Atlanta to drop off a group of “poolees” — enlisted Marines waiting for their trip to boot camp — was a comparative breeze.
A recruiter for the United States Marines Corps’ Buford sub-station, Sullivan was a few short minutes from the office. But near Old Peachtree Road, interstate traffic slammed to a halt.
Dark black smoke was soon billowing ahead.
What happened over the next three or four minutes was a lot of things — horrific, dramatic, heroic. Mostly, though, it was training and adrenaline. Sullivan didn’t think, just reacted.
It was what Marines do.
“I had zero fear in what I was doing,” Sullivan said. “I did not care about how hot that flame was. I didn’t care what I would feel in order to get to that guy.”
Seeing the pickup truck engulfed in flames and weary of possible explosions, Sullivan pulled his government van down the shoulder and parked within about 75 meters of the fire. A man, swallowed in flames himself, was screaming as he attempted to crawl out of the passenger side door. He tried to run and fell over.
As Sullivan dashed closer, he yelled for the 26-year-old to “roll, roll, roll.” He kicked and threw dirt to try and put out flames on the man’s body and in nearby brush.
The Marine sergeant then grabbed the still-burning victim under the armpits. With the help of another Good Samaritan’s half-filled bottle of water, Sullivan was able to douse what fire was left on the man’s body.
From there, it was a group effort.
An Army veteran had pulled up and was directing traffic away from the burning truck, clearing a lane for an ambulance. A Marine lance corporal on his way back from drills at Dobbins Air Force Base showed up with a first aid kit and water. Sullivan set the man down on a mat and “stretched him out so he would stay straight.”
A police officer arrived on scene and helped keep the victim hydrated until medical personnel arrived.
“I was like, ‘Look, as long as you’re screaming at me and as long as you’re breathing, you are alive my man,’” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he believed the young man was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center before being flown to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. His status was unclear but the burns were extreme.
Attempts to reach the victim’s family were unsuccessful Friday, but Sullivan said they had reached out the day before to thank him.
“As long as he makes it, that’s all I care about,” Sullivan said. “Honestly you can throw it all away if he doesn’t.”
An 11-year veteran of the Marines Corps, Sullivan said he’s also a “combat lifesaver instructor.”