Military veteran aboard ambulance rescued by crew after it caught fire

(Photo contributed) An ambulance suddenly caught fire on Sandisfield Road on Friday, June 14.

SANDISFIELD — An ambulance suddenly broken into flames on Sandisfield Road while transporting a patient. But thanks to the quick thinking of the two members of the ambulance crew, the patient, a retired military veteran, was pulled to safety before the vehicle became fully engulfed with flames and smoke.

The Chicopee-based crew from Alert Ambulance Service Inc., which is headquarted in Fall River, was transporting the patient from a non-emergency appointment to Berkshire Rehabilitation Center in Sandisfield on Friday afternoon around 3 p.m. when EMT Justine Hanselman smelled smoke, according to Anthony Suffriti, vice-president of operations for the company.

Hanselman, who was riding in the back of the ambulance with the unidentified patient, alerted the driver, Christopher Moccio, of the conditions and moments later, the ambulance went into complete mechanical failure.

“We aren’t sure what exactly happened, but it was a weird malfunction. The ambulance lost its brakes, transmission and power steering, but Christopher was able to get the vehicle to a rolling stop,” said Suffriti.

Once stopped, Hanselman and Moccio removed the patient from the back of the ambulance and wheeled the patient several hundred yards away into a neighbor’s driveway, contacted dispatch and 911.

The ambulance then quickly filled with thick black smoke, said Suffriti.

With the help of a neighbor, Moccio, who is also a per-diem Southwick firefighter, attempted to put out the fire with small fire extinguishers. When that didn’t work, he ran into the ambulance, which at this point was engulfed with flames, to pull a 100-pound oxygen tank out of the back compartment as well as two smaller oxygen bottles.

“He went back to prevent a possible bomb just waiting to go off,” said Suffriti, who feels his crew deserves recognition for their actions. “He (Christopher) told me when I asked why he would go back into the burning ambulance to remove the tanks he said, ‘I didn’t know how far away from the burning ambulance was safe enough for my patient.’”

Firefighters from Sandisfield and New Marlborough arrived on scene shortly after and extinguished the fire, Sandisfield Fire Chied Ralph Morrison confirmed. Troopers from the Massachusetts State Police also responded to the incident.

The 2010 ambulance, however, was destroyed. Though the loss will be covered by insurance, the cost to replace an ambulance is around $60,000 and another $50,000 to $70,000 to fully equip it, said Suffriti.

It’s still unclear what could have caused the fire because Alert Ambulance maintains a stringent preventative maintenance program that’s governed by the state, he added. Alert Ambulance performs about 200 medical transports in western Massachusetts each week.

“I’ve been here with the company 24 years and I have never seen an ambulance completely engulfed with flames,” he said.

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