Tie that binds is gratitude Strangers no more: A former teacher has become a fast friend of the young unemployed man who pulled him from a crashed, burning pickup.

November 06, 1995|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Karen Mulhauser nudges a guest's elbow and nods toward Marc McClain. "This is the hero who saved Fritz's life," she says.

On June 3, Mr. McClain pulled Fritz Mulhauser, a stranger, out of a burning truck. Yesterday, Mr. McClain was the honored guest at a party at the Mulhausers' home in Washington.

Strangers no more, the two men now are fast friends. Theirs is a friendship forged by fate -- a friendship bridging gulfs in age, race and life experience.

"Marc and I were brought together by very urgent circumstances," Mr. Mulhauser says. "Our differences disappeared. Now we're linked by something that matters very much to both of us. It's a bond that's going to last."

Mr. Mulhauser, 52, is a soft-spoken former history teacher, principal and government worker -- as well as the pedal-steel guitar player in Bootleg, a Carroll County-based country band. He and his wife, Karen, a management consultant to nonprofit groups, live in a rowhouse decorated with modern art seven blocks east of the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. McClain, 24, is unemployed after being laid off from his job in a pawnshop. He lives in an apartment with bare walls in Prince George's County.

"If Mr. Mulhauser saw me on the street, I don't think I'm the type of person he would start a conversation with," Mr. McClain says. "White folk tend to be scared of people like me."

Mr. McClain is young, black and male.

"But when I pulled Mr. Mulhauser out of that truck, it didn't make no difference what color he was," Mr. McClain says. "There are people -- no matter what color -- who are willing to help out another person."

About 3 a.m. Saturday, June 3, Mr. Mulhauser was driving home after playing country music at Nashville's in Timonium. Nearing the district line on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Mr. Mulhauser, who doesn't drink, apparently fell asleep. His Ford pickup truck drifted into the median and slammed into a tree.

Mr. McClain pulled over after seeing the truck's lights beaming in the trees -- and a fire burning under the hood. He and another motorist discovered a motionless Mr. Mulhauser pinned inside the locked cab. Mr. McClain ran back to his car, grabbed his metal steering-wheel lock and smashed Mr. Mulhauser's passenger window.

As the flames under the hood spread into the cab, Mr. McClain and the other motorist pulled Mr. Mulhauser out and carried him across the highway. Within minutes, the entire truck was ablaze.

Mr. Mulhauser says that every bone in his right leg was shattered. He suffered broken bones in his left leg, a broken left hip, broken nose, skull fracture, cuts and a gaping wound in his right leg.

He was operated on eight times in two months at Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly. He still undergoes physical therapy and walks with crutches, but expects one day not to need them.

After learning about the rescue from U.S. Park Police (the other motorist who helped disappeared into the night), Mrs. Mulhauser announced to her husband: "Let me tell you about our new best friend."

Mr. McClain soon visited.

"It was an instant, amazing kind of bonding, which must happen in situations like this," Mrs. Mulhauser says. "The differences between Marc and Fritz are endless.

"But they share the same basic value system -- a concern for helping others, a similar understanding of what's right and wrong. Marc saved Fritz's life because it was the right thing to do, not because he wanted something out of it."

Says Mr. Mulhauser: "He took a risk getting involved. He could have just driven right by. He keeps saying: 'No, it was nothing.' We keep saying: 'Let us make a fuss.' "

They made a fuss yesterday -- wine, turkey, ham, hugs, neighbors, friends and relatives.

"I just thought, 'What if that was me in there?' " Mr. McClain says.

"I'd want somebody to stop and help me. That's the way I was raised, to do things for people before myself. My mother had 10 kids, but she always let people stay with us who had less."

Mrs. Mulhauser is trying to help find Mr. McClain a job. Relatives have even offered to chip in to send Mr. McClain back to college. He studied computer programming for a year and a half before dropping out when his girlfriend -- whom he later married -- became pregnant.

She lives in Michigan, and she and Mr. McClain are getting divorced. But the Mulhausers bought Mr. McClain a plane ticket so he could visit his 3-year-old son.

"They keep saying: 'How can we ever repay you?' " Mr. McClain says of the Mulhausers.

"But I didn't pull him out of that truck for repayment. Payment to me is that he's all right, he's alive."

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