Paralyzed man pulled from van fire at DFW Airport

Posted Saturday, Mar. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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On Friday night, T.J. Griffin said repeatedly how happy he is to be alive.

But not because he rebuilt his life after being paralyzed while playing football for Trinity High School in 1990.

Griffin, of Euless, said he's lucky to have survived the flames that engulfed his van about 6:20 a.m. in front of Terminal A at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Griffin, who had just arrived on an overnight flight from Seattle, might have died had it not been for an airport valet and a woman on her way to a Caribbean cruise.

The valet, Walter C. Vaughn III of Watauga, heard Griffin's calls for help and rushed to his aid.

He was soon joined by Kristina Gish of Euless, who had just arrived by taxi to catch a flight to Miami, said David Magaña, an airport spokesman.

Griffin was contacted at his favorite restaurant late Friday, where he was celebrating with family and friends. He not only lost his van but also an expensive motorized wheelchair, his luggage and his cellphone, he said.

But he didn't care.

"I am blessed," he exclaimed. "I have the greatest family and the best of friends, but, and most importantly, I now have these savior saints in that valet and the lady who helped him. Without them, my family would be having the worst Easter ever, but now it's the best Easter ever."

Griffin said he was in Seattle for a training program conducted by his employer, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. He described himself as a "paramentor" for the organization: He meets with people who have lost mobility through accidents or medical conditions.

"I've been through ups and downs, and I want to make sure people realize their lives are not over," he said.

After his red-eye flight arrived at DFW, Griffin got his van from a parking lot and had returned to baggage claim at the terminal to retrieve his luggage, which was waiting for him at the curb.

He smelled something funny but thought it may have been related to construction at the airport. Then smoke welled up inside the van.

Vaughn, while rushing toward the calls for help, saw fire.

"You could start to see flames kind of lick up a little bit," Vaughn said. Soon they reached over Griffin's head.

Griffin and Vaughn tried to unlock the wheelchair to move it out of the van, but Vaughn couldn't find the release button, so he undid Griffin's seat belt and put him in a bearhug.

Then he pulled him out onto the pavement. Gish ran forward and helped Vaughn drag Griffin farther from the van. The heat burst the van's windows.

Firefighters from DFW's Department of Public Safety arrived to douse the fire. Once Griffin was safe, Gish caught her flight. She could not be reached for an interview.

Vaughn, the father of seven, doesn't think he was a hero. He finished his shift at DFW and went home to rest before reporting to his second job at BNSF Railway.

"If anything, I have a new respect for firemen," he said. "After dealing with how fast that fire moved, and the smoke."

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