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Quick reaction saves a life

Published Oct. 6, 2005

(ran NS, S editions of Tampa Bay and State)

James Phillips was headed to Dunedin's Honeymoon Island on Sunday in search of the perfect sunset. But on his way through Oldsmar, the Tampa photographer encountered a scene of horror, not beauty.

A Jeep in front of him on Tampa Road flipped over and caught fire. Three passengers made it out of the vehicle but the driver was trapped in her seat, struggling to get out.

Though the soft-spoken Phillips denies any heroics, he may have helped save the driver's life, fire officials said. The driver, Vanessa Stuller, was on fire when Phillips helped her free herself and extinguish the flames leaping off the back of her head and shirt.

"She was in a big hurry to get out and I was in a big hurry to get her out," said Phillips, who burned his hands in the effort. "She was standing up, bent over in the Jeep trying to get her seat belt off. I helped her out a little bit."

Stuller, of 1412 New York Ave. in Palm Harbor, was westbound on Tampa Road when her rear axle malfunctioned, causing a wheel to come off and roll across the road, said Pinellas County Sheriffs Sgt. Greg Tita.

Phillips said the Jeep had left a McDonald's restaurant and pulled out in front of him. Stuller had been ahead of him for only a few minutes when he saw one of the Jeep's oversize wheels roll off. At first, Phillips thought an accident could be avoided.

"They just weren't going that fast," Phillips said. "They were going 35 (mph), maybe. I thought for a moment that she would be able to control it and come to a stop and we would be able to have a good laugh over it."

The Jeep crashed in the 3800 block of Tampa Road near the West Bay Nursing Center. Also in the car were Stuller's son, Robert Stuller III, 10; Diane Stuller, 27; and her son Shawn Stuller, 5. Officials did not know the relationship between Diane Stuller and Vanessa Stuller, and they did not have an address for Diane Stuller.

Phillips said the two children were thrown from the Jeep and Diane Stuller freed herself.

The Jeep "was just instantly engulfed," Phillips said. "It was really a horrific sight to look inside there."

A call about an overturned Jeep didn't seem a big deal at first to Lt. Jerry Gabardi of the Oldsmar Fire Department. But the sight of jumbled traffic, drivers pulling over to help and thick black smoke told him that "we had something pretty intense."

Firefighters from East Lake and Palm Harbor also responded.

Gabardi said he plans to write thank-you letters to the passers-by who stopped to help. He also wants to have a plaque presented to Phillips at an Oldsmar City Council meeting.

"They were all instrumental in helping these people and rendering them to safety," Gabardi said. "This is a story that "(Rescue) 911' would probably like to jump on."

Sgt. Greg Tita of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Vanessa Stuller was burned over 30 percent of her body. She was in critical but stable condition Monday at Tampa General Hospital's burn unit.

Robert Stuller III was treated and released from Mease Hospital Countryside. Diane Stuller was expected to be released from Bayfront Medical Center Monday evening. and Shawn Stuller was in fair condition in the hospital's pediatric unit.

Not long after the crash, the sunset that had eluded Phillips' camera for weeks appeared at the scene of the accident.

"Just a glorious sunset occurred," Phillips said. "The best one in weeks, I'm sure."