Grant Russell saw the wrecked car on north Interstate 95 first. Then he noticed a man frantically waving for help.
Minutes later on Christmas morning, 23-year-old Russell was pulling an injured driver through the window of a burning car -- just seconds before flames engulfed the inside of the vehicle.
"One thought that went through my head was I couldn't let (those) people burn," said the Bethesda man. "I saw what was happening and it scared me enough to do something."
While other people struggled to get the passengers out, Russell went around to the driver's side. He saw Clayton Anderson, covered with blood, caught behind the steering wheel.
Russell put both hands through a small opening at the top of the window and pulled until it popped out, cutting both his hands. He asked Anderson, "Where have you been hurt?" trying to determine if he should move the older man.
But then Russell realized the car was on fire.
"As soon as I saw fire, I said to him, 'I have to move you as quickly as possible.' He said, 'Do whatever you have to do to get us out,' " Russell recalled.
Russell, who works at a Giant Food Store and as a free-lance photographer, then put his arms around Anderson and hoisted him out through the window.
By the time Russell got Anderson out, flames had spread to the inside of the car. He tried to move the injured man again, but had to get help from others there to pull him further from the burning car.
Anderson, 61, of Hoboken, N.J., had been driving home with his two grandchildren, both of Rocky Mount, N.C., for the holidays.
At about 9 a.m., Anderson's car crashed into a guard rail in the center island of north I-95, just south of Route 216 near Laurel.
Battalion Chief Donald R. Howell of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services said he does not know what caused the one-car accident.
But the impact caused all four doors of the 1973 Buick Electra to jam shut.
Several other passersby had helped Anderson's grandchildren, Ebony Anderson, 16, and Malcolm Anderson, 8, out of the car.
They were treated at the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital for minor injuries and released.
Clayton Anderson was flown by helicopter to the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, suffering from head, facial and leg injuries.
He was reported in fair and stable condition Friday.
Russell said later that the incident seemed like a dream. "Afterward, I just couldn't picture myself doing what I did," he said.
He said he was unsure how he managed to pull Anderson, who outweighed him considerably, out the window by himself. He guessed that perhaps people can do extraordinary things under extraordinary conditions.
Howell credits Russell with saving Anderson's life. By the time the first rescue unit arrived about six minutes after the accident, he said, the entire car was in flames.
If Russell, or someone else, hadn't pulled Anderson from the car immediately, his chances for survival would not have been good, Howell said.
Russell said the incident shook him up and was not how he expected to start his Christmas holiday.
But, he added, his concern was for the family. "What got me upset was that this family had to suffer like that," he said.