WEIRTON, W.Va. — A normally quiet drive to Clarksburg turned into an unforeseen test of nerve and skill for DEA Special Agent Mark Simala on Nov. 19, 2014.
Simala, commander of the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force, was on his way to his quarterly firearms qualification when he came across a fiery four-vehicle accident on Interstate 79 near Morgantown.
He jumped out of his car and ran across the median, toward a vehicle that looked like it was going to burst into flame.
“One was totally engulfed. One was starting to catch on fire. It was really nasty,” he said. “It’s still driven in my memory – the accident, the heat from the fire, the people yelling, ‘Get out of there, it’s going to blow.'”
For his actions that day almost a year ago – actions that saved the life of Dr. John R. Phillips – Simala received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Heroism on Wednesday.
Simala, 44, of Wellsburg, attended the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., with his father and other supporters, and got to meet U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
But the award, he said, cannot compare to the fact that Phillips, a pediatric cardiologist at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, is recovering from his injuries and still able to do his life-saving work.
Phillips walks with a cane but is back to work at the hospital after months of recovery from broken legs, a broken pelvis and a torn aorta, Simala said.
“I joked with him recently that he’d better get back to saving some lives,” Simala said.
That Wednesday morning, the lives of two strangers – of the same age, with children of similar age – were brought together in a bond that only shared trauma can create.
Simala was running late that day because his autistic son was having behavioral issues before he left. He wonders what would have happened if he had not come across the accident when he did.
“It was one of those things that was meant to be,” he said.
Although he didn’t hesitate to run toward Phillips’ Infinity SUV, Simala said he was hampered by the fact that the door handles had been sheared off in the accident. Phillips apparently had crossed the median while southbound on I-79 and struck head-on a car driven by Mary Jane Wood, 47, of Morgantown. Wood died at the scene.
Simala and other witnesses used a sledge hammer to break the driver’s side window. When he reached in to touch Phillips, the body moved.
“I didn’t know if the guy was alive,” he said.
Simala opened the door from the inside and pulled Phillips out and across the highway.
“I wasn’t going to let this guy burn alive,” he said. “Another 20 seconds, he’d have died in there.”
Just as Simala was asking Phillips if there were any passengers inside, the car exploded. Simala looked down and noticed that his own jacket was singed and there were cuts on his right hand.
Phillips was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he works – and later to Cleveland by helicopter.
Simala went on to the Clarksburg shooting range to clean himself up. It was only when he got home later that evening – when he talked to his tearful wife and daughter – that the gravity of his actions sank in.
“Destiny and time put us together,” he said. “I was just glad I could help. If not, nobody else was going to go over there. He was going to die and burn alive.”
The two men have stayed in touch by phone and text – they sent each other pictures on Father’s Day – but they met for the second time only last month, when Phillips’ son came to Brooke High School to compete in a cross-country event.
The two men hugged, but there was nothing to reminisce about. Phillips cannot remember the accident. As for his part on that day, Simala, a former volunteer firefighter, said, “It was just reaction. I was very calm during the whole experience.”
About Simala, U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II said, “Special Agent Simala’s heroic efforts grabbed the attention of the attorney general, who recognized him for his bravery, composure and strength of character. Mark carries these qualities with him at all times, whether he is investigating drug dealers or saving the life of a stranger on the side of the highway.”
(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])