MADERA COUNTY – It was just a regular Wednesday for Codee Cardoza and her young kids. They were driving back home from a doctor’s appointment, headed south on a little stretch of Highway 99 that’s under construction, around 3:15 in the afternoon. Baby Ethan, 2, was safely secured in his car seat, and Codee’s daughter Paiden, 9, was buckled up properly in the front. It was just a regular day.
Meanwhile, heading north on the same stretch of highway was Kirk Cardoso, 32. Kirk was having a busy day that started with a job in Bakersfield, then had him in Fresno, when he was suddenly called to Modesto and then, at the last minute, advised to scrap the Modesto plan and head back to Fresno. Kirk works for AAA Property Service, which stands for “anything, anytime, anywhere.” They take their motto very seriously. Kirk wasn’t even supposed to have been out on that stretch of highway, except for a schedule change. It was just a regular day.
Within moments, Codee and Kirk’s lives would intertwine in ways that are heartwarming and uplifting and have undoubtebly changed the flavor of life for all parties involved. You know what they say about disaster? Look for the good guys. This story has a happy ending, but it starts out really badly, and circumstances only took a split second to go wrong.
“We were driving on the freeway and I was passing a semi-truck,” says Codee, 28, commenting less than 48 hours after the accident on Oct. 7 that nearly claimed her life. “I was clear until the semi trailer started coming into my lane from behind, and I moved over and swerved a little bit and my tire caught the shoulder and the gravel on the highway.”
When she corrected, Codee saw she was headed straight for the tail lights of the semi, so she corrected again. Her 2005 Nissan XTerra SUV collided with a cement barrier on the slow lane side.
“I was going about 65 when I hit the barrier, and the car flipped numerous times, across the slow lane and into the fast lane. When we first flipped it felt like forever, hearing my kids scream, feeling the airbags going off in my face and punching me backwards. It felt like an eternity. Finally it stopped, hitting the barricade between the southbound and northbound lane. We wound up driver’s side on the dirt.”
They were trapped. Cars came to a standstill on Codee’s side of the freeway, where people immediately whipped out their cell phones, many of them taking pictures and videos. The semi-truck was long gone. Traffic heading north continued to fly by. Long seconds passed.
Meanwhile Kirk, 32, had witnessed the accident.
“I saw the dust kick up, they rolled, and I knew it was bad. I thought traffic would stop and it didn’t.” Dodging vehicles, Kirk ran across the freeway and jumped over the center divider to get to Codee. “I heard screams, I saw flames, and I heard her screaming ‘get my kids.’ My instincts were to get to that rear seat.”
Plenty of people had stopped to take pictures and videos. Some of them were calling 911, but the way Codee and Kirk remember it, many people just stood around capturing the moment.
Codee and her kids used to live in Oakhurst, where her daughter still goes almost every day for cheerleading practice they signed up for before moving to Clovis, where Codee is in training to be an EMT. As soon as the vehicle stopped rolling, all her skills and instincts kicked in.
“I knew I had to get the kids out of the car, not only my mother instincts but I felt my eyes scanning the kids to see that they are okay. It’s a primary assessment: you have to be aware of your surroundings, you have to scan your patient, to see if there’s anything apparently wrong, to see if they can walk and move.
“My kids were dangling and I remember just screaming, ‘somebody get my kids, somebody help us,” Codee recounts. “And then I heard Kirk’s voice.”
There was barely enough room for Kirk to get in the window but he somehow managed, on his back, and that’s when he saw the baby.
“The little boy was trying to get out the car seat and he couldn’t. He was fully aware of what was going on.”
Kirk has no experience with child safety seats, but upside down reaching into a vehicle about to burst into flames, he managed to get the buckles undone, and he was acutely conscious the clock was running out. He would either get them out or die trying. The smell of gasoline grew stronger.
“I knew this was a bad combination, gas and fire, and I was pleading for more help, saying ‘someone please help.’ Finally, two other men from a concrete crew pulled over and got Codee’s daughter out of the passenger side.”
Kirk pulled little Ethan free, and since no one one stood by or stepped up to take the toddler’s hand, Kirk had to sit the boy down on the freeway just beneath the center divider, telling him to stay put.
“My kids have angels with them,” says Codee with all the emotion you can imagine for having survived this traumatic accident. “He had to put Ethan on the ground and pray to God that he did not move.” Both Codee and Kirk were shocked at the lack of compassion from those on scene. “You see this man pulling this family and you stop and take a photo? You see him put a little kid on the ground and you don’t stop and help? The 99 is right there. What if my son didn’t stay put? It’s a big miracle.”
Kirk then raced around to get Codee out.
“I was able to unbuckle myself,” Codee explains, “but I couldn’t get out and Kirk reached out and pulled on my back belt loop and sort of flipped me out of the car. All this while he was yelling at me and people were yelling saying, ‘it’s leaking,’ and ‘it’s going to catch on fire!'”
They were right.
“As soon as I set my feet on the ground, it caught on fire and we ran the other way.”
Codee reunited with her children, and used someone’s cell phone to call her partner Beth. Over the phone, Beth heard the car explode and Paiden screaming. First responders were stuck in traffic. The vehicle was fully engulfed in flames. Codee was disoriented and hyperventilating, but relatively unhurt, with bruises and abrasions on her left side. She credits Kirk with saving her life, and the lives of her children.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. It was not even a minute from us landing where we did, to the car on fire. It was less than minute. There were flames right where my daughter and I were sitting.”
She’s relieved her son’s car seat did its job, as well.
“I can’t stress how important car seats are, to have the right car seat, and follow the regulation — my son barely moved, he was so secure in there. He has a bump on his chin and that’s it.”
Kirk also feels the situation was nothing short of miraculous.
“It’s surreal,” Kirk says. “The hand of God gave me the strength and clear headedness to think straight.”
Not only do Codee and Kirk have similar last names — hers is Cardoza and his is Cardoso, and they’re both of Portuguese descent — they both have a foothill connection. Codee’s mom still lives in Coarsegold, and Kirk’s longtime-girlfriend is Cassie. Cassie’s father, Frank Verduzco, was recently memorialized in North Fork, when hundreds of people came out in his honor after he passed away suddenly in his sleep. Frank Verduzco was a 43-year veteran of Madera County Fire Department Station 11.
Verduzco was a brave and beloved man whose shoes will be hard to fill, says Kirk.
“Frank, being the guy he was, I truly feel he was there with us on the day of the accident,” Kirk says. “There was gas: I smelled it all over, I was on my back with my head looking up, and this poor little boy couldn’t get out on his own. I’m so glad I was there, because this would have been a tragedy.”
Kirk and Codee both caution bystanders against taking pictures of accident scenes when that time and energy could be more appropriately used to actually help the situation.
“This is not an opportunity to take a photo or video and that needs to be recognized,” Kirk says. “Everybody is so caught up in media, and having their phones. Take your time to help people. Life is way too short. Hug your little ones, because you don’t know. I hope it’s an eye-opener for a lot of people, that it’s good to be a good person, and to help others.”
Codee agrees, and has enormous gratitude for Kirk and his actions on that fateful day.
“He’s a wonderful man for his bravery, for risking his life. I get to hold my kids, I get to be home with my family. There are not enough words to thank him.”
Kirk is both awestruck and humbled by what happened on Wednesday, on that regular day. The Madera resident downplays the heroics even as he knows he risked his own life to save theirs.
“I’m just a guy who is hoping someone would do the same for my family in a time of need. Apparently there are more people concerned about getting YouTube hits, and it breaks my heart.” The exceptions were the two or three men who stopped to help. For those guys, Kirk has only appreciation.
“For the few guys that decided to be men that day, big thanks. That was a situation that divided the mice from the men. Personal safety went out the window and I thought, ‘I’m going to either get them out of the burning car or die with them.”
Once responders were finally able to fight their way through traffic, Codee and the kids were taken by ambulance to the hospital. She’d lost everything in the SUV, and the vehicle itself, but she had her kids and her family was there with her, which is all she really wanted anyway.
Kirk went back to work. Just to top off the afternoon he helped responders get a baby out of a locked vehicle in the parking lot of his job site. Then, he decided to go see how Codee and the kids were doing.
He arrived at the hospital, came around the corner, and saw just the folks he was looking for. Baby Ethan saw Kirk first.
“He came up and gave me a big hug. He acted like such a little man, trying to get out of the car seat on his own, I had to get under there and help him out.”