EXCLUSIVE REPORT: They couldn’t have known it then, but a group of heroes who pulled a driver from a burning SUV seconds before it exploded on the Garden State Parkway in Washington Township a little over a week ago were rescuing a man who once made headlines in and around New Jersey.
All of them stopped their cars on the Parkway and came running after his 2007 Nissan Murano veered across three lanes of traffic, slammed into a tree, then burst into flames, pinning him inside.
One of them, a retired Connecticut policeman, punched out the back window and pulled the driver out with the help of an off-duty Tenafly police officer and a Carlstadt EMT just before the vehicle exploded.
There was also a Washington Township police officer who kept the victim breathing and helped get the parkway closed quickly to clear space for a medical chopper to set down in the center lane.
Some of the rescuers may have heard of the man they helped save that afternoon. His name is John Gordnick.
Ten year ago, Gordnick pleaded guilty to helping Jayson Williams hide bloody clothes and other evidence the night the former New Jersey Nets star shot and killed a limousine driver at his Alexandria Township mansion.
In exchange for a reduction in charges that would keep him from jail, Fordnick testified against Williams.
A judge later sentenced Gordnick, of Rochelle Park, to a year of probation, court fees, and 200 hours of community service. The sentence ran concurrently with another year of probation he received for promoting a gambling ring in Monmouth County.
Jayson Williams served 18 months on Rikers Island for fourth-degree aggravated assault before being released in April 2012.
Despite serious injuries, Gordnick, 55, survived the July 20 crash on the Parkway in Washington Township.
New Jersey State Police charged him with reckless driving, improper passing, failing to wear a seatbelt and damaging state authority property after taking statements from others on the road that day who said they saw the vehicle weaving in and out of traffic before it smashed into the tree.
One of them, Joseph Della Monica, was driving his family from Connecticut to a gathering in Fair Lawn when, he said, the weaving Murano caught his attention. The retired Milford, CT police sergeant said he and his wife were exchanging comments about it when it suddenly crashed.
Della Monica immediately pulled over and went running.
“I checked to see if there was anyone else in the car,” he told Greenwich Time.
The front of the SUV was ablaze, the vehicle was filling with smoke, and Gordnick “had been thrown into the passenger seat facing the wrong way, with his foot wedged under the seat,” he said.
Della Monica said he couldn’t get the door open, so he smashed in the back window with his forearm.
Others came running, as well.
They included Tenafly rookie Officer Louis Smaragdakis and 23-year-old Christopher Griffin.
Smaragdakis, a lifelong Tenafly resident, just became a borough police officer in February. He’s been an assistant football coach and site supervisor for the Tenafly Recreation Department and was a dispatcher for several towns — Upper Saddle River, Maywood, Montclair and Tenafly, among them.
Griffin, 23, an East Rutherford firefighter with EMT credentials, “jumped out of the car with me still in it,” said his girlfriend, Alyssa Menendez.
Griffin said he was “doing what I was trained to do.”
Della Monica told police that the SUV was quickly filling up with smoke as he freed Gordnick. Smaragdakis and Griffin then helped him pull Gordnick out and over the guardrail, he said.
“By the time we took 20 steps, the car literally exploded,” Della Monica told NBC Connecticut. “It was like something on TV.”
Washington Township Officer Travis Cangialosi was on patrol on nearby Burke Street when a motorist pulled up and told him there’d been “a really bad” crash on the parkway.
Radioing in the call, Cangialosi could see “a steady plume of smoke” as he crossed the westbound Washington Avenue overpass. He quickly pulled onto the southbound side and made his way through traffic, reporting “parked vehicles all over the parkway.”
Across the way, he could see the Murano in flames, on a slant against the guardrail.
Della Monica, Smaragdakis, Griffin and four other people were carrying a limp and bloodied Gordnick along the left shoulder of the road.
Cangialosi reported that he had them put Gordnick down as he called in to township police headquarters first for basic and then advanced life support, as well as firefighters and “any agency that could assist with the traffic.”
Gordnick was “breathing and conscious, but not responsive,” the officer wrote in his report.
Cangialosi got an oxygen tank from his radio car and Gordnick began to become responsive after the officer applied it.
Two of the good Samaritans, Suffern Dr. David Levy and his wife, Leslie, both of Suffern, bandaged Gordnick’s arm, which was losing blood, Cangialosi reported.
Township Police Sgts. William Curl and Roy Scherer arrived, along with firefighters and ambulance workers from the township, Hillsdale firefighers and an advanced life-support unit. Other responders included Hillsdale police Sgt. Sean Smith and Officer Anthony Lacher, Montvale Police Officer Douglas McDonald and NJ State Troopers Anthony Giunta, A. Pena and A. Peele.
Noticing that Gordnick was also bleeding from his head and leg, Cangialosi immediately called for AirMed One.
The parkway was cleared, and the chopper eventually landed on the highway.
Boyd A. Loving.
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