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Cumberland County wreck links lives of two men

After more than two years of burn treatments and recovery, Frankie Graves was recently reunited with the man who saved his life.

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When Frankie Graves was trapped inside his 18-wheeler truck and covered in flames, he didn't know if he was going to survive. A stranger helped to pull him from the wreckage.

After more than two years of burn treatments and recovery, the Goldsboro truck driver was recently reunited with that stranger.

In October 2009, Graves was driving his rig on Interstate 95 north of Fayetteville just south of the Harnett County line. He came across another truck that had stopped to push a broken-down pickup truck off of the road.

Graves swerved, but he was too late. He crashed, and his truck burst into flames near milepost 68. 

Chris Burns, who was driving southbound in I-95 with his brother, said he saw a spark in the distance and then an explosion.

"The window wouldn't come down. I tried to get out the door. The door wouldn't open," Graves recalls. "That's when I said, 'I can't get out of here.' I said, 'I'm just going to die right here.'"

Burns, an Army reservist, said he had to stop and help. He saw Graves inside the truck slumped over and on fire.

Graves said he heard a voice telling him to "kick the window."

"That's when I shook my head...woke up," Graves said.

Burns said Graves went head first through the door window.

"He was totally engulfed in flames. It was like I'm trying to catch him as he's coming to the ground," Burns said.

Burns forced the trucker to the ground and smothered the flames. Then, he saw the shiny tanker attached to the truck and feared it was filled with fuel.

"For the first time, I felt fear. Because this guy had lived through this, now we're both going to die," Burns said.

Both men were lucky because the tank was filled with swine blood and not fuel. 

Paramedics soon arrived. Burns said he went home haunted the the incident and thinking the trucker would never survive.

"I could still feel the heat. I could still feel him – the burning. It was traumatic for like three days for me," Burns said. 

Graves had burns on more than 40 percent of his body. He spent two months in a coma at North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. He is still undergoing physical therapy.

Although Graves, 58, would never drive a truck again, he still travels I-95 to visit his family in South Carolina. Last week, he made a special stop to visit Burns, whom he hadn't seen since that night.

"I never forgot him because every day I think about him," Graves said.

Burns, 42, of the Gray's Creek area, said he doesn't remember telling Graves to break the window. Graves said he thinks the voice was an angel.

"I know an angel flew me out of that window because I went head first," Graves said. 

The two men plan to stay in touch and visit often.

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Bryan Mims, Reporter
Michael Joyner, Photographer
Kathy Hanrahan, Web Editor

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