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Hero teen saves mother, 3 children from burning car

TODAY logo TODAY 9/19/2020 Rachel Sokol
a man standing in front of a building © Waterbury Police Department

Justin Gavin, 18, is a life saver. Literally.

On September 9th, Gavin was heading to Walgreens in Waterbury, Connecticut to pick up some items for his sister, when he, and numerous others, noticed a car was engulfed in flames and driving down the street erratically.

“The car drove past me, on fire,” recalls Gavin, a student at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, New York who is temporarily living in Connecticut.

The car came to a stop and Gavin raced to help the driver and passengers — a mother at the wheel with three young children in the back.

Gavin was scared the car might explode, but raced to help anyway. The door handle in the back was hot to the touch, he recalls, and he quickly asked the 9-year-old child to please unbuckle her younger siblings, ages 4 and 1, from their seatbelt and car seat so he could carry them to safety. Then he helped the mom out of the driver's seat. It’s believed the fire was started by some type of electrical failure, according to Gavin.

Waterbury Chief of Police Fernando Spagnolo rewarded Gavin for his heroic act by giving him a "Challenge Coin," an award generally given to a stand-out police officer.

“Justin showed the country we need each other and need to engage in selfless acts,” Spagnolo told TODAY Parents. “Actions like his show how we, as a society, get through social unrest with an open heart and an open mind. Justin’s getting the attention he deserves, and we want more of this; what he did was so awesome.”

a group of people riding on the back of a train: Justin Gavin rescued the four passengers in the vehicle, including and mom and her three children. (Waterbury Police Department)

Justin Gavin rescued the four passengers in the vehicle, including and mom and her three children. (Waterbury Police Department)
© Waterbury Police Department

“The community has really rallied for him and he’s garnered lots of support nationwide and he’s handling it so well," Spagnolo said. "I think he’s going to do great things in the future.”


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Gavin says he did what he thinks "a lot of teenagers would do."

“Some people think teens are just lazy, but that’s not true," he said. “I wouldn’t consider myself a hero; I’d just want someone to help me if I was in that situation and that’s why I ran to the car...This was really about someone else’s well-being, not mine.”

Gavin says the attention he’s received has been pretty flattering.

“Oh, everyone, everyone has been calling me, even strangers," he said. "Everyone knows what happened and is talking about it.”

Gavin hopes to meet the family he saved, and Spagnolo is in the process of arranging it. The rescued mother and her children are recovering, and thankful, Spagnolo said.

“I feel good about it,” says Gavin of saving the family. “Situations can be scary, especially if your life is in danger, but if you jump into action and help someone you feel good about it.”

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