It's been about a year since that dreadful day for a Coarsegold mother and her two young daughters -- stuck in a smoldering car off Highway 41 near Road 200 after being struck head-on by a Ford F-250 that lost control and veered into their lane.
While it could have ended as a terrible tragedy, thanks to a group of men and women that stopped to help before emergency responders arrived, it was instead a scene that shown with the best of mankind.
One of the men that stopped was 62-year-old Robert Vannata of Mariposa. As 28-year-old Brittany Gilchrist's Nissan Sentra was filling with smoke with her daughter Cambria, 5, and infant Shaelin in the back seat, Vannata ran to the vehicle, broke out the windows and helped pull the girls to safety.
Seeing their mother's legs broken and pinned beneath the steering wheel, but knowing there was little time to waste, he hooked his arms beneath her armpits and lifted her up and out as a couple other good samaritans on scene assisted.
Within a few minutes of getting her out of the smoking car, the front end of the vehicle was up in flames, quickly engulfing everything but the trunk in fire.
"If it weren't for those individuals (that stopped to help), it would have been three people burned up and deceased in the vehicle," said California Highway Patrol Sergeant Edward Greene, shortly after the June 22, 2011 accident.
"I can't believe it's been a year," Brittany said, recalling the accident. "We would not be here without the men that stopped to help us. A real big thank you to them. They are heroes."
The American Red Cross thought the same.
After being nominated by his wife Liz for his bravery, Vannata received the American Red Cross Central Valley Chapter "Adult Male Good Samaritan Hero" award -- an honor bestowed to one man a year, chosen out 240 applicants from the counties of Mariposa, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern.
"Any normal person that's able-bodied would have done the same thing," said Vannata humbly of stopping to help at the accident. "If my family was in the same situation, I hope people would do the same."
Along with his act of heroism last year, Vannata has stopped to help at two other major vehicle accidents on Highway 41 within the last two years before emergency responders arrived on scene.
"He's like a guardian angel of some sort," said wife, Liz, who also helped at last year's accident with the Gilchrists.
Vannata has certainly been well-trained to respond quickly and efficiently in an emergency situation. He's a recipient of the Presidential Citation award for his work as a federal agent for the Department of Homeland Security and has several other medals for serving in Vietnam -- a member of the famous U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne, the first combat unit to get to Vietnam and the last to leave it.
"He's always been a hero in my heart, serving in the Vietnam War and as a federal agent," said wife Liz. "If I was in an accident, he's the one I would want to be there. He's the epitome of a hero. If someone's hurt, he just gets out there and helps and doesn't think about it ... He wears his heart on his sleeves. He's just a good guy, and not only just saving people."
Liz recalled an incident where her husband saw a new-born baby calf alone in a field near their home, turned the car around to check on it, and called Animal Control to make sure the creature was OK.
"It's just stuff like that -- not everyone would care about that little calf," Liz said. "It's a great quality to have -- he doesn't let things go, he always follows up."
"What goes around comes around," Vannata said. "If you can help someone, your fellow mankind, it's always beneficial that you do, not only for self-gratification, but for the people that need the help. And I've come to find out that Brittany Gilchrist and her husband and children are some of the nicest people I've ever met."
Along with the award Vannata received from the American Red Cross, he was also honored last year by Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, 19th District Representative Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) and the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce. Certificates recognizing the outstanding act of bravery were also given to the other men who stopped to help at the June 22, 2011 accident, including Ponderosa Telephone employees Larry Perez of Fresno and Zack Taylor of Clovis, Mark McKinney of Tulare, and Armando Flores of Madera.
Vannata also received certificates applauding him for his act of bravery from members of the California senate and assembly after he received the American Red Cross award.
Thanks to the quick assistance from Vannata and the others who stopped to help, Brittany, Cambria and Shaelin are all healthy and healed today.
Cambria, 5, recovered from her internal injuries after several surgeries for a lacerated liver and spleen, and her broken her broken arm, shoulder and some ribs have healed. Brittany has healed from surgeries for compound fractures in her legs -- breaking both femurs, one fibula and knee -- along with some internal injuries, rib and sternum damage. Infant Shaelin received no injuries from the accident.
"The most important thing is that three people are here that may not have been here without the help of others," Vannata said. "It was a joint effort -- all the people that jumped in to help, and they deserve as much gratification and acknowledgment. There's still good in this world."