The memory comes back to Grant A. Russell like a dream in slow motion. Coming upon the car accident. Finding a badly injured man trapped behind the wheel. And, miraculously, pulling the 225-pound man out of the window seconds before the car burst into flames.
"It is kind of hard to imagine what I did," said Mr. Russell, a slender 23-year-old Bethesda man who was honored yesterday in Howard County for his dramatic Christmas morning rescue. "It was a reaction. After it was all done, it was like I had just woke up."
What Mr. Russell did was "a superhuman and heroic effort," said Donald R. Howell, battalion chief of the county fire department, as he and other officials presented the college student and free-lance photographer with a Gift of Life Award.
Mr. Russell and his girlfriend, Stephanie Alter, were on their way to her parents' home in Columbia to celebrate Christmas when he came upon the one-car accident on Interstate 95 south of Route 216.
"I saw the car wrapped around a guardrail across the road, and the driver and children inside the car looked pretty hurt," he said. "It had just happened, and it didn't seem like too many people were interested in helping, except for one man who was frantically waving for motorists to stop and help."
So Mr. Russell crossed busy lanes of traffic to the car, with its engine smoking and Clayton Anderson and his two grandchildren trapped inside.
Mr. Anderson, a burly man with a friendly twang in his voice, had left family members in Rocky Mount, N.C., at 3 a.m. that day to return to his home in Hoboken, N.J., with his grandson, Malcolm, 8, and granddaughter, Ebony, 16. He recalled feeling drowsy as he drove.
"I believe there were gas fumes in the car because I was not fully awake," Mr. Anderson said in a telephone interview. "The next thing I saw was like a huge wall of a tractor-trailer and I pulled away, swerving to avoid hitting the truck, and the car crashed into the guardrail.
"It seemed like Mr. Russell was by the car almost at once, trying to open the door, but it was jammed," Mr. Anderson recalled. "He said, 'Roll the windows down,' and they wouldn't go down. Another person broke the back side door windows and got out my grandson and granddaughter first. I was pinned behind the driver's wheel."
Mr. Russell said he noticed that the car's engine was on fire and figured that he had only a few moments to move Mr. Anderson or the flames "would consume us both."
"The front driver's window was open an inch, and I pulled on them. They popped and smashed, and I cut my hands pretty good," he said. "Smoke was coming out of the car. I saw the flames around the engine and told him I would have to move him."
Then Mr. Russell, who stands 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 170 pounds, reached through the driver's window and somehow managed to pull the 225-pound Mr. Anderson to safety.
"I did not realize how heavy he was until after I had lifted him up and out and put him some 10 feet away," said Mr. Russell. "When I tried to drag him further away because the car was engulfed in flames, I could barely budge him and needed help from others."
Mr. Anderson, who is in the trucking business, said he was still recovering from a broken right leg and a smashed heel. But he spoke joyfully of his encounter with Mr. Russell.
"That man saved my life," Mr. Anderson said. "I think of it every day. One day when my leg gets better, I will find Mr. Russell and give him a bear hug, and if he doesn't watch out, I will kiss him on the cheek. To this day I don't know how he got me out of that car."
After he received his award yesterday from Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the bespectacled Mr. Russell said he believes he would do it all over again, and "I hope someone would do it for me."
"You are either going to be a doer or a watcher when a event like this occurs," Chief Howell added. "On that particular day, there was one doer. I have been to other incidents when there was nothing but watchers."