Off-duty deputy saves couple from burning car in Manatee County

Photo credit: Manatee County Sheriff's Office
Photo credit: Manatee County Sheriff’s Office

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — A Manatee County deputy is being hailed a hero after rescuing a couple from a car fire on Sunday.

Neil Cook and his wife Claudia were traveling on Moccasin Wallow Road when he noticed smoke coming from his vehicle.

“I pulled off and as soon as I pulled off, my wife said ‘there’s smoke coming from the hood,’” said Neil Cook in a phone interview.

Cook pulled over onto the grassy shoulder and realized the car was on fire.

He and his wife attempted to get out, but none of the electronic windows or locks would work, trapping both inside their burning car.

“I said ‘get out of the car’ and she said ‘I can’t get out of the car,’” said Cook.

Off-duty Manatee County Deputy Willie Finklea was riding by on his motorcycle with his wife at the time, when he saw the fire.

“Noticed there was smoke coming from underneath the vehicle. Wasn’t sure what that was, but then I said ‘I better go check to make sure,’” said Deputy Willie Finklea.

That’s when he realized the couple was in distress.

The smoke was building.

Deputy Finklea used his personal firearm and fired one shot into the left side rear window to gain entry.

“Didn’t have time. I didn’t have time to be scared,” said Deputy Finklea. “I had to use my off-duty weapon to fire one shot to put a hole in the window and then I broke the glass out with my foot.”

He then opened the rear passenger-side door and got Claudia out of the car, then helped Neil.

The Buick Lucerne was engulfed within minutes.

“The fire started underneath. It was about 30, 40 seconds of me being there, fire had started on the grass underneath the car,” said Deputy Finklea.

Finklea believes he was at the right place at the right time.

“I thank God and my wife and I had been blessed by this situation, being chosen by God to be someone’s rescuer, that’s a big deal,” he said.

Thanks to Deputy Finklea’s quick actions, there were no serious injuries.

Photo credit: Manatee County Sheriff’s Office
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Willie Finklea

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