This rookie firefighter pulled a woman from her burning car. She finally got to thank him

A rookie Fresno firefighter received a hug from a woman he rescued from a burning car last October as he was awarded a Medal of Bravery from Fresno Fire officials Wednesday.

Rene Gonzales was only two months on the job last Oct. 21 and was off-duty and driving home on Highway 180 when he spotted a burning car.

Gonzales stopped his car and jumped out when he saw a woman trapped behind the wheel as flames at the back of the vehicle began to spread toward her. As a good Samaritan tried to open a passenger door, Gonzales grabbed a metal pipe he found nearby, broke a car window and then used the pipe to free Brooklynn Banta, of Madera, whose legs were trapped under the steering wheel. Then Gonzales and the Samaritan, (who was never identified or found, despite department efforts), carried Banta to the freeway median.

There was confusion at the fire scene and initially, it was feared Banta’s baby, Jayden, was still trapped inside. Gonzales ran back for another rescue. Fortunately, the child was not with her mother when the crash occurred.

At a ceremony Wednesday, Brooklynn Banta was reunited with her rescuer.

“I asked if I could hug him, and he said OK,” she said.

Banta spent months in rehabilitation after the crash learning basic skills again and found Wednesday a day to rejoice.

“It was so incredible that he saved me,” she said. “I had to relearn everything — how to walk, and that took me a long time … the doctors said I was an incredible miracle.”

Banta’s uncle, Jason Kong, who turned out to be a Fremont City fire captain, was also on hand to thank Gonzales. He said all firefighters are family, but added that he felt a special kinship for the Fresno Fire Department. He’s from Fresno and initially wanted to work in the city, but he wound with the Bay Area department.

“Words can’t express my gratitude,” he said. “It was an incredible feat.”

Gonzales, who still has a couple of months to go on his one-year probation as a firefighter, may have uttered the least words about events last October. Among them:

“I think any Fresno firefighter would have done the same thing I did.”

Fresno Fire Department awards

Medal of Bravery: Rene Gonzales, firefighter

Meritorious Service Award: Crew of Engine 15 (James W. Taylor, fire captain; Kurt J. Probasco, firefighter specialist; DeAndrae A. Douglas, firefighter)

Unit Citation Award: Crew of Truck 10 (John M. Pepper, fire captain; Randy E. Dennis, firefighter specialist; Jamen K. Elliott, firefighter); Crew of Engine 8 (Robert C. Camp, fire captain; J. Russell Patterson, firefighter specialist; Michael A S’Gro, firefighter; Shane K. Brown, firefighter; Crew of Engine 1 (Steven M. Byers, fire captain; Martin A. Klopmanbaerselman, firefighter specialist; Adam Enns, firefighter specialist; Shannon L. Swillis, firefighter

Clinical Save (Star of Life): Crew of Engine 2 (Rudy Guadiana, fire captain; Jason S. Moore, firefighter specialist; Michael D. McIntyre, firefighter specialist; Clayton W. Allison, firefighter); Crew of Engine 15 (Gregg G. Skaggs, fire captain; Jed B. Lang, firefighter specialist; David C. Ramirez, firefighter); Crew of Engine 13 (Daniel A. Mendoza, fire captain; Greg A. Roeur, firefighter specialist; Troy A. Chaput, firefighter)