Giving thanks: Survivor of horrific accident meets Morristown firefighters who saved her

Morristown firefighters extricated two victims from a car after a tree crushed it, Ford Avenue, June 18, 2018. Photo by Barry Howard
Morristown firefighters extricated two victims from a car after a tree crushed it, Ford Avenue, June 18, 2018. Photo by Barry Howard
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By Marion Filler

Nikisha Turner’s most enduring memory of the worst night of her life is the hand of Morristown Firefighter Joe San Felice III.

A massive tree had toppled onto a car in which she was a passenger, trapping Turner and driver Tanya Blaine, who later died from her injuries.

HUG OF THANKSGIVING: Nikisha Turner hugs Morristown Firefighter Joe San Felice III, who calmed her when a tree pinned her inside a car. Photo by Marion Filler, Nov. 7, 2019.

“I wanted to be hysterical, and they wouldn’t let me be hysterical,” recounted Turner, 47, who visited the Morristown Firehouse last week to thank firefighters for their actions on June 18, 2018.

San Felice grasped Turner’s hand throughout the terrifying ordeal on Ford Avenue.

“He was so calm, he kept on saying everything is going to be good. It didn’t look like everything was good, but he kept saying it was, so I believed him,” said Turner, a resident chaplain at Morristown Medical Center.

Video: A survivor thanks her rescuers:

Police were first on the scene to investigate, thinking at first it simply was a downed tree, said Firefighter Gerry Beston. It was a few minutes after 8 pm on a steamy night. A thunderstorm had ripped through the area earlier, causing scattered power outages.

“The first patrolman said he didn’t know there was a car under the tree, that’s how big it was. As he got closer to the car, he heard something,” Beston said.

Morristown police said two persons sustained 'traumatic injuries' when this car was crushed by a tree on Ford Avenue, June 18, 2018. Photo by Barry Howard
The driver of this car, Tanya Blaine, died after a tree toppled onto the roof in 2018. Miraculously, passenger Nikisha Turner survived the Ford Avenue tragedy. Photo by Barry Howard

“I had broken the window with my hand,” said Turner, “and then I remember other windows breaking. I could hear someone say ‘help is on the way,’ but I didn’t know who it was and I couldn’t breathe.”

The fire department was called, and when the scale of the rescue was realized, a second alarm was sent for reinforcements.

Turner and Blaine, also a chaplain at the hospital, had been heading home.

“We had a good day at work. We were talking about doing different things at church,” Turner said, referring to her affiliation at Greater Tabernacle Baptist Church in New York City, and Blaine’s with St. Matthew A.M.E. Church in East Orange.

They were within walking distance of the hospital when the huge tree crashed onto Blaine’s Nissan Sentra.

“I didn’t realize that a tree fell on me. I thought maybe it was a limb. I didn’t realize it was a whole tree,” Turner said.

The body of the car was “flat down to the seat,” said Beston. Tuner was pitched forward at a 45-degree angle, with her chin pushed into her chest and five broken vertebrae. Blaine was thrown backward. She died from her injuries four days later. She was 57.

Not fully comprehending the severity of the situation, Turner remembers saying, “If you can lift the roof up, I can get out.”

But she heard San Felice say, “No, we have a better idea.”

After cutting away as many of the branches as possible, the rescue team called a tow truck with heavy duty equipment to lift the tree trunk enough to extricate the women.

‘YOU GUYS ARE ABSOLUTELY AMAZING’

Turner made a remarkable recovery, leaving rehab after about a month. She wore a brace for another three months, and now says she is “standing straighter and straighter every day.”

Her visit to the fire house last week was something of a surprise for about 16 firemen who were attending their monthly union meeting.

Accident survivor Nikisha Turner and Morristown Firefighter Gerry Beston, Nov. 7, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler

“It’s very emotional for us,” said Beston, who connected with Turner through part-time work he does at the hospital.

While they receive occasional letters of thanks, the firemen said it’s extremely rare to get visits from victims of traumatic injuries.

“I know that what you do is hectic,” Turner told the group. “I couldn’t do it in my wildest dreams. Many people are not built for this. So don’t take what you do lightly. And don’t sell yourselves short. You guys are absolutely amazing.”

San Felice was listening at the back of the room.

“Thank you very much,” Turner told him. “You kept talking to me. You were calm. Even as you were talking to each other, you guys were really calm, in a situation that was chaotic.”

“You’re very welcome,” San Felice said. “Glad to see you’re doing good.”

The other firefighters responded to Turner’s hugs and handshakes with the same modesty.

“This is one of the few jobs where you train and train and prepare for those things you hope will never happen,” said Beston.  “Then when it does happen, you do what you are trained to do.”

Nikisha Turner with Morristown firefighters, who rescued her from a car crushed by a tree in 2018. Photo by Marion Filler, Nov. 7, 2019.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks, Diane. Marion wrote a lovely article. Occasionally we might feature someone from Denville, though our hands are pretty full covering events in Morristown, Morris Township and Morris Plains.

  2. Firefighters are second to none. Coming from a firefightering family. I know just how hard they work and care. This was a beautiful story.
    My town is Denville. Do you do stories about Denville? Thought this was about each town.

  3. Our First Responders rarely get the recognition they deserve so I am thrilled to see this coverage Kevin. There is one all important component missing: the volunteer firefighter who held the hand of the woman who passed away 2 days later. Volunteer Firefighter Paul Miller held her hand for nearly 2 hours comforting her until she passed out…. these men are collectively unsung heroes & I for one, am grateful they protect our town!

  4. Our fire fighters serve Morristown, each day in a firehouse deemed inadequate decades ago at the far end of Town. Everyone here is safer as a result of their dedication. Just getting from Sussex Ave. to Ford Ave. that night was a challenge and should inspire our support.

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