Man, 80, Pulls Driver from Sinking Car in Calif., 17 Years After Saving Neighbors from Burning Home

Steve Montelongo may not think he’s a hero, but the three people he’s rescued over the last 20 years might beg to differ.

“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he told KOVR. “I was just a fella that got put in the right place at the right time.”

The 80-year-old Montelongo was in the right place at the right time last week, when he leaped into action in California to help pull a man from his car after he accidentally drove it into a canal, according to NBC affiliate KCRA.

The rescue mission came nearly 20 years after he pulled two of his neighbors to safety as their house burned down.

Montelongo told KCRA that he was taking his granddaughter home from the dentist on Thursday when they stopped at a traffic light around 10 a.m. in Modesto.

“She says, ‘Oh my god, a car just went into the canal, grandpa!’” he recalled.

Montelongo pulled over to check out the scene, and jumped into action immediately, as water had begun rushing into the car and the driver remain trapped, the Modesto Bee reported.

“Nobody’s trying to get into the water to get the guy out,” Montelongo told the outlet. “So I walked into the canal — it was about 10 feet for me — and I managed to open the door. It was unlocked, thank God for that. And I pulled it open, but then the water rushed in faster.”

Eventually, Montelongo was able to yank the “panicking” man from the car by his shirt, KOVR reported.

The California Highway Patrol identified the driver as 62-year-old Jack Swarts, and said he suffered an apparent medical episode before he crashed into the canal, the Bee reported. He was reportedly not injured, but was taken to the hospital.

Montelongo’s heroics in saving Swarts are not the first time he’s risked his life to save another; in 2003, he was awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission medal for rescuing his elderly neighbors after a natural gas leak and explosion set their house ablaze.

The retired construction worker was 62 years old at the time, and managed to kick open the front door of the burning house to pull 80-year-old Kathirne Mattox to safety, according to the Commission.

“I heard the explosion, ran over to see what was going on,” he recalled to KCRA. “I thought it was my house. It was the neighbor’s house. Ran over there and my son was trying to get in the door and he couldn’t, so I said move, let me try. And that’s when I pulled the door. And then I kicked the inside door because of the carpet, and I pulled the lady out.”

He then went back into the house to rescue 79-year-old Wayne Maxwell, too. Montelongo suffered chest pains during the rescue and was hospitalized for observation, but recovered.

Tom Olsen of the California Highway Patrol praised Montelongo’s quick thinking.

“First responder, he can probably add to his resume,” he told KOVR. “A lot of people are in the right place at the right time, but very few actually did what Mr. Montelongo did.”

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