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Pair recall extraordinary actions at fiery crash that saved 2 people, led to Carnegie Medal

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 12/31/69

Something made Jennifer Lynn Dixon turn down Stoner Drive late that night.

To this day, she doesn’t know why. Stoner Drive wasn’t on the way to where she planned to go — the …

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Pair recall extraordinary actions at fiery crash that saved 2 people, led to Carnegie Medal

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Something made Jennifer Lynn Dixon turn down Stoner Drive late that night.

To this day, she doesn’t know why. Stoner Drive wasn’t on the way to where she planned to go — the Black Horse restaurant on Main Street in Middletown, to celebrate the Blue Raiders’ big football playoff win over Scranton Prep in Bethlehem on Nov. 25, 2016.

They never made it to the Black Horse. They turned down Stoner Drive, and Joey Keating is alive today.

“What if we had gone straight?” Dixon asks herself today. “We would have heard about it on the news, or maybe we would have just waited and called 911. They would have burned and died. I did not want that on my conscience.”

Sitting in his recliner watching TV, Aaron Andrew Young was used to hearing loud noises from the road, from the big trucks on the airport connector passing near his house on Stoner Drive.

But this “bang” just after 11 p.m. on that Friday night was louder, closer to home. He went outside and looked out  front, but couldn’t see anything.

“Something kept telling me to look the other way” and when he did, Young could see the orange glow of something that he knew was on fire.

And today, Scott Shaffer is alive.

Ordinary people, thrust without warning into extraordinary roles.

On Dec. 18, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission announced that Dixon and Young are among 18 people throughout all of the United States and Canada chosen to receive the Carnegie Medal for acts of “extraordinary heroism.”

The actions of Dixon and her mother, Mavis, both of Middletown, are credited with saving the life of Keating, at the time an 18-year-old Middletown Area High School graduate.

Young is credited with saving the life of Shaffer, at the time a 19-year-old 2015 Blue Raider grad.

Keating and Shaffer were also coming back from that memorable 2016 playoff game in Bethlehem. They were almost home, when Shaffer lost control of the car in the 300 block of Stoner Drive, about 70 yards up the road from Young’s house.

Rick Cruz, a Lower Swatara Township resident who lives near Young and who was driving down Stoner Road and stopped to render aid, also played a role in the rescue although he was not chosen to receive a Carnegie Medal.

Dixon and Young say they don’t know who nominated them to receive the medal.

They are both happy to receive the medal, although it wasn’t something that either of them say they were expecting.

“I was shocked and happy and excited, all at the same time” when the man from Carnegie called Dixon the other day to tell her she would be getting a medal. “It was a great feeling that I haven’t had in awhile.”

“It’s pretty neat,” Young said. “I honestly think my biggest reward was what we did that night. This is kind of icing on the cake. It’s definitely an honor.”

Dixon — who turned 30 on Christmas Day — has lived in Middletown all her life. She grew up in Genesis Court, graduated from Middletown Area High School in 2007, and now lives off South Catherine Street. Mavis lives on West Water Street.

Lower Swatara firefighters during a ceremony that the township held honoring Dixon and the other rescuers asked her if she had ever been in the military. They figured she had to have been, because as she recalls them saying, “not a lot of people would have done what you did that night.” At least the firefighters wear protective clothing.

Dixon said no, she’d never been in the military, although she does work for the Army at the depot in New Cumberland. She was a distribution process worker at the time, and is now in the maintenance department.

Young, a bank credit officer, and his wife, Kristy, have three kids, ages 8, 10 and 12. Young had connections to both Keating and Shaffer, although he didn’t realize who either boy was at the time because they were so badly burned.

Keating’s father, Brian, is good friends with Young’s sister’s husband. Still more uncanny, Kristy knew Scott Shaffer’s dad, Tom Shaffer, from years before when Kristy was a teacher in the Central Dauphin School District.

A former elementary school principal at Fink in Middletown, Tom now teaches language arts at Middletown Area Middle School.

“We know these people,” it dawned on Young as he sat in an ambulance moments after rescuing Shaffer, for the first time starting to wrap his head around what he had just done.

Jennifer’s story

After making that turn onto Stoner Drive, Jennifer quickly came upon the car that was on its roof and already catching fire.

She had remembered seeing the same car on the highway as they were both driving back from Bethlehem. Realizing it was the same car, “all I could think of is that’s somebody’s kids in that car,” Dixon said.

Next to Dixon in the Nissan van was her sister. Her niece and mother Mavis were in the second seat. In the back was her 16-year-old nephew, who had fallen asleep wearing headphones. He didn’t want to listen to the music that was playing in the van.

Dixon pulled over and thought she had put the van in park. She found out later that in her haste, she had only put the van in neutral and that her sister had to put it in park.

She went running towards the burning car, as if without thinking and pumping full of adrenaline.

Her niece and her sister called 911, but her sister kept yelling for Dixon to get back. The car was “crackling and popping like it was going to explode,” just like in the movies.

At first Dixon was running back and forth, from the passenger side to the driver’s side, until she heard Keating screaming from the passenger side “I’m burning! I’m burning!”

She kicked the passenger side window once, and then twice. The third time she kicked it, the window shattered.

Crawling beneath flames from inside of the car, Dixon grabbed Keating and pulled most of his body out. With the help of her mother Mavis, they were able to get him out completely, but Keating’s pants were on fire.

Mavis took off the jacket she was wearing, and used it to put the flames out. No sooner did Mavis and Jennifer pull Keating to the side than the entire car went up in flames.

Jennifer could feel herself breathing in smoke while rescuing Joey, but she really didn’t pay attention to it. She had also burned her hand trying to pry open the passenger door, but again, it was as if she didn’t feel any of this until afterward.

But Dixon herself was hurt, and in need of medical attention. She was taken to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and later air-lifted to the Lehigh Valley Hospital, where Keating and Shaffer would remain for months enduring multiple surgeries and beginning their long road to recovery.

Aaron Young jokes that Dixon “hitched a ride” on the same helicopter that flew the two boys to Lehigh.

Dixon stayed at Lehigh for nearly two days, returning Sunday afternoon to Middletown.

That same night hundreds of people showed up for a prayer vigil for Keating and Shaffer at the Smith’s Tree Farm in Swatara Township where Shaffer had worked.

Dixon didn’t want to go at first, because she was in a lot of pain.

“My body felt like I was hit by a bus,” she said. But she went.

While she recovered quickly from her physical wounds, Dixon had her own mental trauma from what she had been through on that night.

For the first month after what happened Dixon had nightmares. Her boyfriend would tell her she was yelling in her sleep about being on fire.

Dixon said she doesn’t remember any of the nightmares and dreams, and after about a month they went away.

When she came home from Lehigh Dixon’s two small children — now 7 and 8 — welcomed her with posters saying “My mom is a hero.” Mavis and other members of her family still sometimes say “there goes my hero” as Jennifer walks by.

Besides the recognition from Lower Swatara Township, the depot in New Cumberland presented Dixon with a glass globe. The Lehigh burn center had a big dinner for she and the other rescuers and for the Keating and Shaffer families.

Dixon still stays in touch with the Keating and Shaffer families, mostly with Joey’s mom Rachelle Keating, with whom Jennifer exchanges text messages on a regular basis.

Today, she is grateful to her mother, Mavis, who was “by my side the whole time” during the rescue. They were Joey and Scott’s guardian angels that night, Jennifer said, adding that she and her mother had guardian angels watching them as well.

“You never think” of what you would do in that kind of a situation, Dixon said. “In a lifetime, I never thought I would be put in that situation. I am thankful I reacted the way I did.”

Aaron’s story

When Young first saw the car upside down and on fire, he could see there were people trying desperately to break inside — Jennifer and Mavis Dixon, although Young didn’t know them at the time.

He ran back to his barn to get a sledgehammer, and started up a four-wheeler to drive back down to the scene.

Young was just 39, but he already felt so winded from the cold air in his lungs that he thought he would collapse.

It took just seconds to get back down to the burning car, but by then the Dixons had been able to get Joey out. Joey was walking, but it was more like hobbling, with the smoke coming out of his clothes.

Jennifer and Mavis were busy attending to Joey, who Young could see was “in bad shape,” but Young was worried that others were still inside the car.

He remembers yelling, “Is there anybody else in there?” and hearing someone — he’s not sure who — yell back saying there could be up to five people in the car.

At that point Young realized that if anyone else was in the car, it would be up to him to get them out.

He went around to the front and could see movement in the driver’s seat.

“Oh crap, there is somebody in there,” Young remembers thinking. He yelled to Shaffer, who was fading in and out of consciousness.

The driver’s side window was already blown out. Young squatted down as low as he could while still on his feet, then got on his knees and grabbed Shaffer’s hands and arms, anything he could get a hold of.

“I just remember pulling with everything I had,” and Shaffer came out. Young still finds it amazing that Shaffer didn’t get caught on a seat belt or something else, and came out cleanly. Had he not, Young shudders as to what could have happened.

The car was quickly becoming engulfed in flames. Things were getting worse by the second. He had to get himself and Shaffer away from the car, but Shaffer was totally out and “dead weight.”

He was also still on fire, from the waist down. Young took off the hoodie he was wearing and patted out the flames.

By that time he could see the emergency lights coming from the police and ambulance. They took over. As Young sat in the back of the ambulance, one of the officers came up to him and said “Hey, good news — just two people in the car” and they both got out.

“I thought, ‘Thank God,’” Young remembers. “Holy crap, we did this. We actually got these people out of the car.”

Like Dixon, other than the initial winding from running Young said he didn’t feel any pain while he was rescuing Shaffer.

“The adrenaline gets you through what you are doing” at the time, Young said. “It’s just amazing how your body and your mindset goes into this zone where you are extremely focused on that very second, and what needs to be done.”

Young had a minor burn on his one hand and a little puncture wound, but didn’t feel he had to go to the hospital.

“Can you kind of clean me up here, and we’ll call it a day,” he remembers telling the medical personnel in the ambulance.

Young still got a bill from the hospital.

“I helped save this guy’s life, and I get billed for it,” he jokes. He paid it.

Going back to work in the immediate aftermath of the rescue, Young remembers a moment where he looked at his desk and said to himself, “None of this stuff really matters.”

It did of course — he needed to work to provide for his family. But what had happened that night had changed his perspective, regarding what really is important in life.

“You are so appreciative for the small things, and for family and friends,” Young said. “You want to help people more. I haven’t made good on that, but it feels great to change somebody’s life in that way.”

The Lower Swatara fire chief stopped by Young’s house a day or two later to see if he was all right. Later, as he and Dixon and the others were recognized by the township police and fire officers, Young was taken aback by what the officers were saying to him.

One of his friends, a firefighter, was telling him about people who spend 20 years in the fire department never having the chance to do what Young did, even though that’s what they all aspire to.

A police officer spoke of how amazing it was for ordinary citizens to do what Young and Dixon did, with no training. Praise from regular people is one thing.

For police and firefighters who train to do this everyday telling you that what you did was special, takes it to a whole other level, Young said.

“I’ll probably never get that opportunity again, but it felt pretty darn good,” Young recalled of that night. “It went about as good as it could for a bad situation. The stars kind of aligned for those boys to survive that night.”

What happens next

Neither Dixon nor Young have received their medals yet.

Dixon said the man from Carnegie said he would reach out to the governor’s office, and perhaps to local dignitaries, regarding some kind of public presentation of the medal to her. It would take about six to eight weeks, he told her.

Young asked that Carnegie just send him the medal in the mail.

“I’m not much of a spotlight person,” Young said, although the Carnegie person said Young could change his mind and also opt for a public presentation, if he wants. In any event, he was told it will also take about six to eight weeks for the medal to arrive in the mail.

Including the 18 recognized in 2018, a total of 10,062 Carnegie Medals have been awarded since the inception of the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie fund in 1904.

Each awardee or their survivors also receive a financial grant.