LUMBERTON — Many people wonder what they would do if faced with a life-and-death situation.
Jimmy Rhodes knows.
Put in that position, the Lumberton native tossed aside his own safety and pulled a co-worker from a helicopter engulfed in flames. Although the man eventually would die of his injuries, his widow was grateful for the Rhodes’ heroism, which has earned him the Carnegie Medal.
Rhodes, 41, came to the aid of Patrick E. Mahany Jr. after the hospital’s medical evacuation helicopter he was piloting crashed and erupted into flames on July 3, 2015, in Frisco, Colorado.
“To be a recipient of the Carnegie Medal, that’s a very prestigious award. I’ve heard of military honors, I wasn’t aware of this award,” said Rhodes, a 1995 Lumberton High graduate who was working as a CT technologist that day. “I researched it and it has been around since 1904. I would be the 10,001th recipient. It is an honor.”
The Carnegie Hero Fund awards the Carnegie Medal to individuals in the United States and Canada, a civilian who voluntarily risks his or her own life, knowingly, to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person.
Rhodes, who moved to Colorado in 2006 for a job at Summit Medical Center, said he was doing a routine CAT scan when a nurse came by and “had that look on her face” and said, “The helicopter just crashed.”
“I looked at her, then I kind of glanced outside. I could see the smoke and stuff that was billowing outside. From there I proceeded to run straight to the crash site,” he said. “I just knew I had to get there and try to get him out.”
Co-workers warned Rhodes that the helicopter might explode.
“So, I kind of hesitated just for a minute, and then I was like, well , nothing’s really happening,” Rhodes said. “I knew time is very valuable at this point.
“And once I got to the rear parking lot, the security guard was trying to keep me from getting close to the crash site, which you know I can understand,” he said. “I just kind of looked at him and just ran to the crash site, right past him, like I didn’t have any other option.
“And once I got just a few feet to the crash, the heat was so intense that it just scorched my forehead, that produced first- and second-degree burns, like in an instant,” he said.
Rhodes, who had known Mahany for about two years, realized that he had unbuckled his seat belt, indicating he was alive.
“I was able to grab him by his leg. And proceeded to pull him out. The heat was so intense at that point I actually backed off. And I was looking at him and just froze. I said to Mahany, ‘I don’t know if I can do this? This is really, really hot, like an inferno.’”
Rhodes said he continued to go back into the flames.
Mahany’s widow, Karen Mahany, who was a flight nurse when she met her husband, has seen a videotape of the crash and the rescue.
She said Rhodes was relentless, returning into the flames even after his hair caught fire.
“He put his head out and kept going back in,” said Mahany, who is 47 and lives in Wheat Ridge, Colo.
Rhodes said, “I was able to inch him out a little bit more, then kinda of backed off again, then I ran in there one last time.”
This time Rhodes got a hold of Mahany’s vest, pulled him out and away from the blazing wreckage.
“Once he was away from the the aircraft, instinctual, he (Mahany) was able to roll, as they’re taught if they ever get it into a crash that erupts into flames,” he said. “I knew he was alive at that point, and then, well, I thought maybe everything’s going to be OK.”
Karen Mahany said Rhodes prevented her late husband from living his worst fear.
“Patrick and I talked about a lot of things,” she said. “We talked about our worst fears. He told me that his worst fear was to burn alive in a crash.”
Rhodes was treated for smoke inhalation and burns.
Mahany suffered severe burns, and blunt force and internal injuries and later died.
“Jimmy gave me time with my husband,” she said. “I was able to be there when he entered into Heaven.”
A moment Rhodes is happy he could give her.
“I’m so glad that I was able to to have that for her, there was brief moment where I thought I don’t know if I can do this,” he said. “And then I thought I can’t have come this far and not continue.”
The crash was blamed on the design of the aircraft’s dual hydraulic system.
Karen Mahany’s life mission now is to introduce a bill into legislation that will make aircrafts safer.
“If I can prevent a spouse from becoming a widow, if I can save just one life, I will be happy with that,” she said.
Two flight nurses, Dave Repsher and Matt Bowe, were also on board the helicopter. Both survived with debilitating injuries.
Karen was watching a morning news show when she learned of the Carnegie Medal.
“Jimmy deserved that medal, he is a hero,” she said. “I submitted an application right away.”
Rhodes said he would risk his life again.
“For myself, you know, I don’t look at myself as a hero,” said Rhodes, who lives in Wilmington, and works at New Hanover Medical Center with plans to become a physician’s assistant. “I am just a regular guy, just living in society.”
The awards dedication ceremony will take place in June in Pittsburgh. Rhodes’ parents, Kenny, a longtime firefighter and fire marshal for Lumberton, his wife Debbie, and sister Kendra Robinson, all of whom live in Lumberton, plan to be at the ceremony.
Reach Annick Joseph by calling 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected] or Facebook Annick MultiMedia Journalist.