Vinny Santiago: A Moment Of Change

Coffee and traffic. The first absolutely makes the second bearable. Roselle Park volunteer firefighter Vinny Santiago knows that all too well. He even made a ritual around it since getting a job in New Brunswick: leave home a little after six in the morning, drive down Westfield Avenue, stop by 7-Eleven to get coffee, hit the Parkway, and try to avoid as much traffic as possible. If all that happens, the day is on its way to being a good one.

Then, some days, for reasons we might not understand at the time, we make a change for something different. For Vinny Santiago, that day was December 20, 2013. A little over two months ago, the 22-year-old skipped out on the grind. Maybe it was to get a head start on traffic during the Christmas season, maybe it was to start on a new year’s resolution early, maybe he wanted to get in early and take a late cup. Whatever the reason, Vinny really could not recall why at that moment he headed straight for the Garden State Parkway South instead of turning in for a fix.

Then – getting onto the highway – Vinny saw the red lights of brakes and thought to himself, I really need a cup of coffee.

At first he thought it was a disabled car on the right lane so, like everyone else cramming from four lanes to one, he started moving to the center lane. It was then he saw it.

“There was a car overturned on its side”, Vinny recalled of the moment he was about to become an integral part in someone else’s life, “And there was one car stopped in front of it pulled over.”

As if almost by reflex, the Roselle Park resident put all his firefighting training into action, pulled his car over, got out, and ran up to the overturned car that had smoke coming out of it. Getting past the 3 or 4 people who were standing around the vehicle, Vinny crouched and looked down on the driver’s side window. Nothing. He glanced at the back seat and that is where he saw the driver, Nerlande Forrestal, conscious but terrified. Taking out his firefighter’s knife, which is equipped with a window punch and seat belt cutter, Vinny aimed for the front window to break it without having glass shatter all over the driver. He tried one spot, nothing. Then another and another; still nothing.

Nerlande got into the front seat in a panic and started screaming to get her out. Vinny moved to the back of the car and punched the small rear window. The glass shattered and instinctively Vinny reached in to grab for the handle to open the door.

“I cut my hand,” he stated, “I still have a piece of glass in it.”

Only one thing mattered to Vinny at that moment – not his cut hand, not his coffee, not the traffic – he just needed to get her out of that car.’

Pulling her out and away from the car to a safe distance, Vinny felt her grip on him, not wanting to let go as she prayed. The police showed up and stood by with an extinguisher waiting for the fire department to arrive – Nerlande would not let Vinny go. The ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital, and she still would not let go of her rescuer. Being put on the gurney, she asked someone to have Vinny put his contact information on her phone as she started drifting in and out from relief or exhaustion. Knowing she needed to be attended to and not having any time before she left to put in his name and phone, he returned the phone to the medic and stood & watched as she was driven away to get medical care. The officer on scene gave him a head nod and Vinny just got back in his car and drove to work. When he arrived at his job, he took care of the cut and continued on his day.

At that time, neither Vinny nor Nerlande knew each other’s names. Roselle Park News researched the incident and legally obtained information on ‘the woman in the car’ as Vinny knew her. Ms. Forrestal, when reached by phone and after being explained the reason for the call, elatedly said, “Oh my goodness! Yes! He saved my life!”

Nerlande went on to say that she never found ‘the angel’, as she called him, who saved her when her life literally turned upside down. Arrangements were made and contact information was exchanged to allow each of them to reach out to one another privately – the incident started out with just the two of them and it is fitting that it end that way.

Maybe they can sit down and talk about it over a cup of coffee.