A group of average Edmontonians, along with a six-year veteran of the police force, were honoured Wednesday night for their bravery in attempting to save a stranger’s life while putting their own in danger.
Ryan Brewster was driving down 97 Street on Oct. 24, 2016 when he witnessed a collision.
He said he remembers the crash in slow motion, as a car that had just passed him smashed into the back of a Nissan Xterra.
Brewster said the impact “sent that SUV into the air, into a ball of flames and into a light post.”
He responded instinctively.
“First thing that comes to mind was just get over there, park and get out and help.”
He pulled over, assessed the scene and raced to grab his welding glasses, gloves and fire extinguisher.
At the same time, other people came running from all directions to help too, some with their own fire extinguishers.
“We just kind of tried to keep her engulfed in fire extinguisher retardant or water and tried to keep the flames away from her,” he explained.
Brewster admits he was concerned for his safety – thinking of his little girl as he stood close to the flames.
“I knew that there was fire involved and tires pressurized with air and fuel tanks and things that could go wrong – plastics and glass. While I was in there, I was kind of hesitant because I was kind of worried about myself getting injured and not being able to be there for my family.”
Meanwhile, Const. Sasa Novakovic noticed smoke as he was driving down 97 Street. Initially, he thought a building was on fire but as he got closer, he saw it was a vehicle.
“When I exited the car, I saw a handful of civilians reaching into a burning vehicle,” he said. “I just didn’t understand what was happening until I saw what I saw, which was a tragic event.”
He grabbed his fire extinguisher and joined the firefight but the group couldn’t keep the flames down.
“The civilians were incredibly courageous and selfless and at the end, I had to pull some of them out of the the situation because it became too dangerous for them,” Novakovic said.
For his efforts, Novakovic received a commendation for bravery from the Edmonton Police Service, but he said he was just doing his job and all credit should go to the citizens.
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“The courageous acts performed by each and every single one of them involved in this – it was very motivational, inspirational. It stuck with me for at least several weeks.”
“To put your life in danger for a stranger, just because you see the other person suffering and you want to do whatever you can to help, it was really impressive.”
Brewster, along with four other men – Bradley Chalmers, Benjamin Sacks, Neal Seifeddine and John Wajaras – received citizens awards as well.
In hindsight, Brewster said he was impressed with how well the witnesses united under extreme conditions.
“It was actually really good to see people come together like that and not care about anything else but [to] help.”
Ultimately, despite their best efforts, the woman stuck in the Xterra – 50-year-old Joann Christou – died that day.
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“This ceremony for me is bittersweet. I’m honoured, I’m humbled. But at the same time, I don’t believe I deserve it because the outcome wasn’t what we all wanted,” Novakovic said.