“It’s very important to me that people recognize what he did,” Jim Wade said Thursday night from Wishard Hospital. “There is no way I’ll ever be able to express the gratitude I have to this guy. Words just don’t do him justice.
“He literally risked his life. If it wouldn’t have been for him, none of my kids would have survived.”
“He” is Greg Bugher, the passer-by who pulled Wade’s three children — Branden, Courtney and Kristin — and their friends Alex Stang and Chase Parker from a burning minivan in a horrific wreck that killed Joy Edwards, his former wife and the children’s mother, Easter morning.
“I can see him trying to downplay exactly what he did,” a grateful Wade said. “I feel a debt of gratitude to Greg Bugher that I can’t even express.”
Edwards and her children lived in Kokomo, with Courtney and Kristin attending Western High School and, ironically, the Bughers — Greg, Dianna, Gavin and Parker — live a little more than a mile west of the school. All were returning from spring break trips: the Edwards group from Gulf Shores, Ala.; the Bughers and Cody Jansen, Gavin’s best friend, from Fort Myers, Fla.
The Bughers nearly became the victims of Nicole King.
For a reason yet to be determined, the 25-year-old Noblesville woman drove the wrong way on Interstate 465 for 16 miles before colliding head-on with Edwards’ Pontiac minivan at 3 a.m. last Sunday.
The Bughers switched drivers shortly after crossing the Ohio River at Louisville, Ky., but by Indianapolis, they were in need of gasoline.
“I’m in the passenger seat and was just starting to fall asleep,” said Greg, a supervisor in Delphi’s Kokomo operations. “[Dianna] asked if I wanted to get gas at this exit. I said, ‘no, go to the next one.’”
Greg laid back and closed his eyes again. They wouldn’t be closed long.
“I was driving. It was just me and everybody else was behind me,” Dianna went on. “There were no taillights in front of me. There was no one for a long way. I was driving in the center lane and I saw what looked like headlights heading at me. A little farther and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a car coming at me.’ I got over into the right lane.”
Awake after his wife’s exclamation, Greg said the “car flew right past us.” He estimated that King’s vehicle was going around 80 to 85 mph.
“That’s just a guess, but you can tell when they fly past you,” he said.
“When something like that happens, you think ‘this can’t be.’ A car doesn’t just come against the traffic like that on the interstate,” he continued. “You want to put a net around it to stop it. You want to let the people behind you know and there is just nothing you can do.”
Dianna looked into her side mirror and saw the wreck happen as she stopped.
“[King] didn’t even try to swerve. She rammed the van head-on and I saw that it flipped up and over,” she said. “It caught fire immediately. I’d already stopped. I got out the cell phone and called 911. I couldn’t even tell them where we were I was so nervous.”
She gave her husband the phone and he saw a sign and was able to tell the 911 operator the nearest exit number.
“They wanted more information and I said, ‘I can’t. They’re screaming and need us now,’” he recalled.
Edwards swerved to the right at the last instant, and Wade fully believes she did it to take the brunt of the crash because “she always put the kids first.”
“I’m convinced that was why she swerved the way she did. It was her attempt to shield the kids,” said Wade, who also lives in Russiaville. “It was just a natural instinct to protect them.
“If she hadn’t turned that little bit, Courtney wouldn’t have survived. Fortunately, all the kids had their seat belts on and that saved them, I’m sure.”
The van was on its passenger side with fire coming out of the engine.
“We both ran toward it and I turned and yelled, ‘Stay there, don’t come any closer’ at Dianna,” Greg said. “I got up on it and I could hear everyone screaming and then I could see Courtney pushing on the windshield with her feet, trying to get out. I reached down and grabbed at the windshield where it had rolled up. It was heavy and then she crawled out through there.
“She stood up. Her feet were a mess and she fell. I grabbed hold of her and carried her back to my wife. Dianna got her up on the guardrail and sat with her there.”
Courtney had been sitting in the front, talking to her mother, with her feet on the dashboard. Her father said she hit the windshield, but because of her seat belt, she didn’t go through.
“Before I ever talked to Greg, one of the first things Courtney told me was that this man came running up as she was trying to crawl out. He came up, pulled her out and scooped her up,” Wade said. “It meant so much to her that someone was willing to do that.”
As he ran back toward the burning van, Greg stopped.
“It hit me at that moment. I could see the fire and hear the screaming,” he said. “You see things on TV and you think you know what it’s like. You don’t. It’s horrifying.”
He looked back at his van and saw his own children watching.
“I looked over at my wife and Courtney and, at that moment, I realized I might not be coming back,” Greg said. “My family, I knew they were safe and God was going to protect them. But, if I don’t go do something to help the kids in the van, they weren’t going to live.”
At that point, Greg was the only chance those in the van had.
“No one else got out to help,” Dianna said.
When he got back to the van, the fire was spreading. He tried to look inside but had to climb up on the van to see inside. That was when Kristin was able to get out, so he got her out of danger.
“I was scared for him,” Dianna admitted. “He climbed up on the van and I felt it could blow up at any point.”
Returning to the van, he saw one of the boys who couldn’t get out on his own. Greg couldn’t reach him and climbed onto the guard rail to get on top of the van.
“The flames were growing, so I ran back to the van and grabbed a gallon of water,” he said. “I jumped up and grabbed the boy. By then, another person was there. I said ‘I’ll have to roll him out over the top of the van and hand him to you.’”
Courtney was going into shock, and Dianna got her into their van.
“Courtney was shivering and shaking. Her pupils were enormous. The fire truck and ambulance got there. The [medics] worked on her while the boys were sitting there,” Dianna said. “Parker was talking to her, trying to calm her down and rubbing her as they worked on her.”
Greg and the other Samaritan got the second boy out and to safety, but the fire was back and moving underneath the van.
“The flames were to the point where they were burning my shoes. I was standing with one foot on the guard rail and the other on the luggage rack,” he said. “I could see the fuel cell and the flames were coming up on it.
“I reached down and grabbed Branden, but he couldn’t move at all. He was pinned and still partially had his seat belt on. I looked at the other guy and said, ‘We have to get the fire out.’ I told Branden I’d be back.”
He remembered the cooler in the van and retrieved it.
“We threw the water and ice on the flames. We poured Coke and juice and whatever other liquid there was on the flames and slowed it down,” he said. “Someone [possibly a state trooper who had arrived] had busted out the back window. I saw I had a clear view of him. I stepped in and grabbed his right arm. The other guy grabbed his left arm. I said, ‘We’re going to get you out’ and we began pulling him out. We had to carry him out.
“When Branden came out, the flames were at the second seat. Thirty or 40 more seconds and he would have been burning. By the time we got him away and turned back, it was engulfed and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.”
Seeing everything transpire, the boys got scared for Greg, his wife said.
“Parker was crying. He thought his dad was going to get killed, and Gavin was telling me to tell Greg to get off the van,” Dianna said.
Courtney had been telling her there were six people in the minivan.
“There were five people out and I asked Greg if he got six out. He said he’d lost track,” Dianna said.
By this time, Greg was having problems breathing from the smoke he’d inhaled.
“The firemen and ambulance attendants decided he needed to go to the hospital. Parker kept saying he couldn’t leave him. They came back and took Parker with him in the ambulance to the hospital,” Dianna said.
After receiving an oxygen treatment, Greg was released and the family made it home.
Monday, Dianna heard someone had died so she called Wishard Hospital, afraid it was one of the children.
“I found out it was their mother. I told Greg, and he got upset.”
“I took it hard because I thought I had missed her,” he said.
Wade has seen the van and “it was literally pulverized.”
“It doesn’t seem possible anybody could have come out of that alive,” he said. “Everything burned, the seats, the carpet. It was all gone, just black.”
Tuesday, the Bughers went to Wishard to see the children and met their father at that point.
Seeing the children has helped immensely.
“They immediately reached out for us and said thank you,” Dianna said.
Wade reassured Greg there was nothing he could have done to save Joy.
“Jim told us you couldn’t have seen her,” Greg said. “That really helped because I kept closing my eyes and thinking what I should or could have done differently.
“That was the true blessing. I know it wasn’t possible to save Joy. That is what I struggled with most. The second was being able to see the kids. Looking at them, there were still three in the van when the flames were getting worse, I thought ‘are we going to make it?’ Going and touching them was the best recovery there was.”
There is one unsung hero, all agree.
“If anyone knows who that man was, the families would like to thank him. At the end, there he was and he was a big help,” Greg said.
Wade will be eternally grateful to Bugher.
“He’s the kind of person who is going to be humble and not want to emphasize what he did. It really is important to me that everyone knows what he did. He’s a hero. There is no other word to describe what he did.”