It was nearly 4 a.m. and pitch black along U.S. 24 when Richard Krochta drove past a plume of smoke coming from the wooded area to the right of the highway.
He backed up his tractor-trailer, pulled out his extinguisher and ran toward the smoke. That’s when he saw a minivan burst into flames, he said. As he battled the blaze, he heard cries for help.
What happened next, the retired fireman called “second nature.”
The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission called it “extraordinary.”
The commission recognized Krochta on Monday for his heroic efforts in August 2018, when he pulled two people from their car after it went off the road a few miles west of Woodland Park, hit a tree and burst into flames.
He was one of 18 people across the U.S. and Canada to receive the Carnegie Medal, which honors “those who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others,” a news release stated.
“I was a fireman and EMT for most of my life, and I have never been recognized for anything like this,” said Krochta, now a truck driver for Savage Services. “It feels pretty great.”
The Florissant man said he was headed for the Cripple Creek Gold Mine when he spotted smoke. He rushed to the driver’s door and found it blocked by tree branches but managed to bend the door enough to pull out the driver, 70-year-old Scott Smith.
Once he laid Smith on the ground, Smith yelled: “Get her out. She’s in there.”
Flames were rising, and the smoke made it difficult to see, Krochta said, but he found Denese Kostrzewa stuck under the dashboard. He said he grabbed her by her coat and pulled her out.
Smith and Kostrzewa, then 59, were taken to a hospital for broken bones. Since the crash, Kostrzewa has had several surgeries to heal two broken hips, her hand and a pelvic injury, said her mother, Shirley Westbooks-Allen. She now is in Terrace Gardens Healthcare Center in Colorado Springs, learning to walk again.
Smith had fallen asleep at the wheel while traveling from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek, the Colorado State Patrol said. By the time fire crews arrived, the van was fully engulfed in flames, authorities said.
Westbrooks-Allen called Krochta her daughter’s angel and hero.
“He is a special person. He deserves (the award) and probably more than we know,” she said.
She said she invited Krochta and his family to her Colorado Springs home last October so she could hug and personally thank him. Krochta calls on holidays and when he’s on the road to see how her daughter is doing, Westbrooks-Allen said.
Since the fund was created in 1904, 10,117 Carnegie Medals have been awarded, in addition to $41 million in one-time grants, scholarships, death benefits and continuing assistance, the news release stated.
The Colorado State Patrol Office also awarded Krochta the Certificate of Honor on Nov. 5, 2018, for his life-saving actions.
Of Monday’s award, Westbooks-Allen said: “He is quite deserving, trust me. He is such a special soul.”
Reach Olivia at email@example.com. Twitter: @oliviaprentzel