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Man braves fire to pull woman out of vehicle

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Roger Pepper was inspecting the guard house at the Bayou Club subdivision Thursday night when he heard the crash.

"I just heard a tremendous crash," Pepper said. "I knew it had to be a terrible accident."

Pepper looked out the window and saw flames. He ran outside and found a burning car.

"It was burning 100 feet from the car in a stream leading up to the car," he said. "My initial reaction was that no one survived, (that) no one could be alive in that vehicle."

Then Pepper saw a woman inside the car.

"Her hair was on fire. Her clothing was on fire. Huge billows of smoke were coming up around her," he said. "She was screaming, "I can't breathe.' "

Pepper ran over and kicked the driver's side window in.

"I grabbed her under the arms," he said. "I still didn't think I'd get her out. It was like God himself got behind her. She just came out."

Pepper beat out the flames that were consuming her and dragged her from the burning car.

The woman, Alison Massari, was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where she was listed in critical but stable condition Friday.

Pepper has first- and second-degree burns on his left hand but said he would have no permanent injury.

It's unclear exactly what happened at Belcher Road and 90th Avenue N. The Florida Highway Patrol handled the incident, and officers had not filed a report as of Friday.

Pepper said it appeared to have been a head-on collision, occurring about 9:45 p.m. It's not known what happened to the other car, if a second one was involved.

Frank Maggio, who watched Pepper pull the woman from the car, said he was amazed at Pepper's heroism.

"He did not even flinch," Maggio said in a written statement Friday. "He simply continued to focus all of his attention and energy on this poor person."

Pepper downplayed his role, saying he had acted the way anyone else in the same situation would have reacted.

"I wasn't going to stand there and watch her burn to death," Pepper said. "If I had not been able to get her out of there, I would worry about my own mental well-being."

It was not until after he had arrived home in Riverview, south of Tampa, that Pepper thought about one possible consequence of his actions. If he had died in the rescue attempt, he would have left his teenage son with no parents.

Pepper, 50, and his son moved to the area in December after his wife died of breast cancer. His wife was from the Tampa area, and Pepper wanted his son to be near relatives to help support them through their grieving.

After the first of the year, Pepper began working with Weiser Security Services, a New Orleans company with a branch in Pinellas Park. Security officers from Weiser patrol the upscale Bayou Club.

Pepper, a field supervisor, is in charge of training and supervising security officers. He was checking on the Bayou Club's security officers when the crash happened. Bob Olesky, deputy chief of the Pinellas Park Fire Department, said paramedics who arrived after Pepper pulled Massari from the flames have asked that he be honored.

Olesky said the department plans to do that.

Pepper said he does not want to be honored or recognized. He only wants "to go to the same place as my wife" after he dies or to have her come back to life.