Codee Cardoza was heading home to Fresno from a doctor’s appointment in Madera with her 9-year-old daughter, Paiden, and her son, 2-year-old Ethan.
A few chaotic seconds later, Cardoza’s SUV was on its driver’s side in the center median of Highway 99 near Avenue 12. She and Paiden were tangled in seat belts and deployed airbags in the front seat, while Ethan was suspended in his car seat. The family vehicle had rolled several times across the southbound lanes after Cardoza had attempted to avoid a big-rig truck that veered into her lane.
“I don’t remember anything from when I started swerving to when we finally landed,” Cardoza said about the crash at 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 7. “I immediately looked at my kids, who were moving and didn’t seem to be hurt.”
At that same moment, Kirk Cardoso was driving north on Highway 99 for a maintenance job in Modesto. His boss had just called him and told him to turn around and head back to Fresno, but he missed the Avenue 9 turnoff. He had nearly reached Avenue 12 when he saw an SUV roll across the southbound lanes and slam into the center divider.
“I pulled over to the side, because I knew this was going to be bad,” Cardoso said. “I was trying to cross the highway, but nobody was looking – they were all staring at the crash while driving by.
“Finally, two cars saw me and slowed down enough for me to cross.”
Cardoso hopped over the median and passed by the SUV’s undercarriage as he went to the front of the vehicle. He smelled gasoline, and saw a few tiny flames flickering near the car.
“I’m not a first responder, but something in me took over,” Cardoso said. “Something reassured me I’d be fine.”
I just thought those kids are too young to die – that family is too young to die. That was the only thing I was afraid of. I would have died to save them after hearing those screams.
Cardoso first approached Cardoza, who screamed for him to help her kids. He was able to reach into the back seat, where Ethan was stuck in his car seat.
“That little boy knew what was going on,” Cardoso said. “He was trying to help me get him out – such a little trouper.”
“I don’t have kids,” he continued. “That was my first time dealing with a car seat. The women in my life have told me it’s amazing I was able to figure it out like that.”
Cardoso placed Ethan on the side of the highway, which was still buzzing with passing cars.
“I begged him not to move,” he said. “I told him I was going to get his mommy, and God bless him, he stayed put.”
By this time, two other men – who Cardoza and Cardoso believe were cement contractors – joined in the rescue effort. They pulled Paiden out of the car while Cardoso was securing Ethan.
Cardoso returned to the car, which was now starting to burn, to save Cardoza. She was able to get herself unbuckled but could not get out of the passenger side door, so Cardoso had to yank her out of it by the belt loop of her jeans. The force was so great that the two men had to catch her as she flew out of the vehicle.
A few seconds later, the SUV was engulfed in flames.
“I just thought those kids are too young to die – that family is too young to die,” Cardoso said as he held back tears while recalling the rescue. “That was the only thing I was afraid of. I would have died to save them after hearing those screams.”
I saw smoke while I was in there, and I heard Kirk yell it was leaking. I was just hoping it wouldn’t burn while we were in there.
Firefighters arrived soon after. They had been held up by traffic on the highway, which is undergoing a major construction project on Avenue 12.
The family was remarkably unscathed. Cardoza suffered a few bumps and bruises. Both children had slight burns from their seatbelts, but were otherwise unhurt.
“Thank God for seat belts and car seats,” Cardoza said.
Although Cardoza was extremely grateful for Cardoso and the two unknown men who stopped to help, she was angry with the group of onlookers who filmed the ordeal with their phones.
“Someone put a phone in my face – that’s the first thing that happened when they pulled me out,” she said. “My son was sitting on the highway alone. No one was helping him.”
“That day separated the mice from the men,” he said. “All these people with cameras – not helping me or the boy. Thankfully those two contractors stopped to help.”