Shortly before 1 a.m. on March 15, 2006, Edward Marsette woke to a loud crash outside his Auburn home. Within minutes, he was pulling people from a fiery, overturned car—he would ultimately rescue four teenage boys from the wreck. Two more did not survive. Marsette has received numerous commendations, including the Washington State Medal of Valor from Governor Chris Gregoire, ’69, ’71, and a Citizen’s Award for Bravery from the U.S. Department of the Interior. He is 42 years old, a Chippewa Cree Indian, a grandfather of three and a senior in the UW’s College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences.
It was your first day of spring break when the accident happened?
I had just finished up. I had two exams that Monday. We had had a windstorm a few nights before, and when I heard the crash I thought it was another storm that had kicked up and knocked the transformer out. But when my wife and I looked outside, we noticed the flames crawling up the utility pole, and we thought we could hear some faint screams.
You were just in your shorts and socks?
Yeah, and my T-shirt.
And one person was already out of the car when you got there?
He was still struggling to get out when I got to him, and his whole shirt was engulfed in flames. So I tried to cover his body with mine, to smother the flames, because he didn’t want to stop, drop and roll. …When I directed my attention back to the car I saw more people struggling to get out. So I started reaching in and grabbing them by the arms.
Were they all burning as you pulled them out of the car?
Yeah. I believe the fourth one that came out was burning the worst. I kind of ripped the burning shirt off of his body, and somehow he stumbled, and when he stumbled his burning pants kind of melted and burned my leg from behind my knee down to my ankle. … Right after I got him out, I noticed that there were some legs on the other side of the vehicle. I guess there were a couple of them still in there. One of them was really heavy-set and one was skinny. But I couldn’t see the bigger boy. So I tried to pull on the legs, but he had his whole body really pinned right in there and I couldn’t do anything. Then a round of ammunition went off, and I immediately knew that it was a bullet. So I got scared, I backed out, and as soon as I got out of there, four more rounds went off. And by then it was really bursting in flames.
Was it the heat that caused the rounds to start going off?
Yeah, and I ran down the street toward the officer, because I saw his car coming up the street with his lights on. So I stopped him about a couple hundred yards away and let him know to stay back, because I wasn’t sure if that was all the ammunition that was going to go off. As far as I knew, there could have been a box in there yet. It turned out to be just one loaded pistol.
How severe were your burns?
I had second- to third-degree burns on my hands and my leg.
But you went back to your house, initially, because you didn’t realize how severely you were burned?
That’s right. My adrenaline was so pumped up that I didn’t really think of help, of needing help for myself. I just told the police to make sure that the boys were taken care of, and I went home.
You’ve received so many awards. When people want to give you a medal and shake your hand, it’s an occasion for celebration—smiles on everyone’s faces. And yet, how do you smile when what you’re commemorating is such a tragedy?
There were times I didn’t feel like I wanted to accept those medals, probably because of the way I was raised. I was raised around my stepfather, and he was a really modest man. He did a heroic act like that in his front yard one time. Two boys overturned their vehicle, and the front windshield had severed the neck of a boy. So my stepfather grabbed a towel or two from our house, ran out there and cuffed that towel around that boy’s neck until the paramedics arrived. He saved that boy’s life, and nobody has ever really said anything to him about that. But I see that. You know? I see him, in his heart, what a good man he is.
In the days and weeks after the accident, was it something that was flashing through your mind a lot? Did it make it hard to sleep?
It did. I kept on seeing myself reaching out, trying to grab for legs.