News: Calm in the chaos: Marine responds to N.Y. gas leak explosion
Story by Cpl. Devin Nichols
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - It started out just like any other day in Manhattan – a cloudy morning with trains running through Harlem.
Sgt. Rasheem M. Thomas, a platoon sergeant for Landing Support Platoon, Transportation and Support Company, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, was sleeping at his family’s house.
Thomas, who was home on leave, was woken up by his daughter at roughly 8 a.m.
He was planning to spend a day with his daughter to get her hair done and participate in other activities. Thomas’ mother told him to check the weather because it was supposed to rain, so Thomas looked outside his window.
As he looked up, a train from the Metro-North Commuter Railroad passed by.
“I looked outside and noticed it was cloudy,” said Thomas. “When I went away from the window, I heard this explosion.”
Debris started to fill the street as car alarms filled the air.
“Instantly, I thought that the train derailed,” said Thomas. “Glass was falling in the china cabinet, and the whole building started to shake.”
He looked out the window to see what had happened, expecting the train to be derailed, but the train was passing by as normal.
“I saw people frantically panicking, running and screaming,” said Thomas. “Smoke was rising and bricks were shooting into the road. It was not difficult to [imagine] that the bricks might have come from my building.”
Thomas immediately put on his sneakers and took off downstairs toward the disarray. He saw crushed cars, debris and bricks everywhere.
Thomas moved up the street to where the explosion originated and saw a man walking toward him out of the disorder.
He asked him if he was okay.
The man immediately replied, “Yeah, I’m fine, but we need to move before the building falls … Joe is in the car,” as he pointed up the street at the vehicles where the building had collapsed, Thomas recollected.
“At first I saw a white van and looked inside and saw no one there,” said Thomas.
The man yelled, “Joe is in the car!”
A white suburban was nearby, crushed by all of the debris and barely recognizable. Inside the vehicle was Joe Kinkade.
“I looked into the driver side of the suburban and there was a guy sitting in the passenger’s seat,” said Thomas. “His seat was reclined and the whole roof of the vehicle was caved in. The door frame was crushed down, the hood of the car was pushed down, and the dashboard was trapping his legs and pinned him to the seat. That is how bad it was … he was stuck.”
Thomas asked Kinkade if he was okay. He replied that his legs, arms and ribs hurt. He then asked if he could get out of the vehicle. Kinkade said, “No.”
Kinkade struggled to get his seat belt off, but it wouldn’t unclip.
“I reached in to push the seat belt,” said Thomas. “The button went all the way down but wouldn’t eject the seat belt.”
As Thomas started to pull again and again to get the door open, a New York City police officer and a couple of bystanders joined in the effort to rescue Kinkade.
“The officer told me to start pulling the bricks off the roof of the vehicle to try to get him through the roof,” said Thomas. “The fallen bricks had punctured the roof of the vehicle, but the hole wasn’t big enough to pull him out.”
Without hesitating, Thomas started clearing out the passenger side brick by brick.
He realized he had to come up with something else to get the man out.
“I came to the conclusion that we weren’t going to pull him out by [removing the bricks] and there was no way he was getting pulled out of the passenger’s side of the vehicle,” said Thomas.
Thomas got out of the vehicle and yelled into the chaos, “Who has a knife?”
Someone passed him a dull, three-inch blade, and Thomas reached back in and began to cut the seatbelt. He warned Kinkade about the pain that would accompany the attempt to pull him out.
“I [told] him, ‘This is going to hurt. I know your legs are pinned, but I’m going to have to pull you’,” said Thomas. Kinkade told him to do it.
After Thomas prepared Kinkade for his plan, he reached in and started to pull.
“I [grabbed] him and [started] yanking him out all the way over to the driver’s side,” said Thomas. “After roughly two minutes, we pulled him out.”
Kinkade tried to stand after he was extracted from the mangled vehicle.
“We put him on his feet, and he attempted to stand up and walk, but he collapsed,” said Thomas. “He attempted to walk three times and collapsed all three times, and then he was carried away.”
He then looked to his right and saw another man who was holding a child. They were both covered in blood, said Thomas.
“At that point I looked up and down the street and saw that other people were getting help,” said Thomas. “Before I could move to that direction the building took fire again.”
The New York City fire department was on scene by that point and started to move everyone back to take control of the situation.
“I sat with the guy that I pulled out of the vehicle to make sure he was okay until emergency medical service took him,” said Thomas. “When he was inside the vehicle he was talking really calmly. He wasn’t screaming or yelling, but you could tell he was scared ... [Joe staying] so calm helped the situation a lot.”
After being at the scene of the explosion for approximately six hours, Thomas finally returned home to his own family.
“I’m fortunate, and my family is fortunate, because there are families out there that lost someone,” reflected Thomas. “Any Marine in that situation would’ve done the same thing because this becomes natural. This is what we are taught to do.”
When asked why he responded to the crisis, Thomas replied,
“When you are in the military, some things are second nature. Being on a combat deployment and being in kinetic situations back to back, [it] became second nature. I can’t even say I thought about it when I did it. The training definitely took a big role.”
Shortly after the events of March 12, Thomas was recognized at the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation’s 19th Annual Semper Fidelis Gala at the internationally-renowned Waldorf Astoria in New York, where he sat with the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, March 20.