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A Hero's Vision

October 28, 2010 - By Erik Lacitis, Seattle Times staff reporter

It would take an unusual man to decide, in a split second after witnessing a car crash, to crawl into the Subaru that had erupted into flames 8 feet high to try to save a little girl and her dad.

A week ago, early Thursday evening in Ballard, that is what Kenny Johnson did.

The accident happened a few feet from his family home and an adjoining business he owns, Rizzo's French Dip, at 7334 15th Ave. N.W.

Johnson, 40, was pulling out of the driveway, he says, when he saw a Ford Fusion heading north on the arterial at more than 60 mph. Then, there was the crash into cars waiting at a stoplight.

Johnson remembers seeing other witnesses hurry to the scene. But nobody went into the flames. "Everybody was kind of frozen," he says.

He remembers talking to himself as he went into the Subaru:

"Oh, my God, this car is gonna blow up and I'm going to be in it. Well, if does blow up, I guess I'm going straight to heaven because I'm trying to save that little girl."

A Hero's Vision

Andy Kotowicz

He did save the 3-year-old, Anna Kotowicz, who suffered a broken arm and some bruising.

Her dad, Andy Kotowicz, 37, who had just picked up his daughter at day care, died at Harborview Medical Center three days later. He had worked for 10 years as a sales and marketing executive, and a talent scout, at Sub Pop, the Seattle record company.

That Thursday, Johnson didn't only crawl into the Subaru; he also went to help the driver of the Ford Fusion, which also was in flames.

Johnson says it looked to him as if the driver was having a seizure: twitching, eyes rolling. He splashed water on the man's face but did not try to move him. By then someone had used a fire extinguisher on both vehicles.

Police say the accident is under investigation. No citations were issued at the scene as is standard until the investigation is complete.

Amid the crackling and popping of the car on fire, Johnson says he heard the cries of the 3-year-old, "a beautiful princess with blonde hair and blue eyes."

"The car was literally like only 5 feet long. The back was totally smashed. The front was totally smashed. The car seat in which the little girl was in the back had been pushed up front," remembers Johnson.

"I looked in the front window and saw the gentleman. He was lifeless. I keep hearing the baby crying.

"I go to the passenger side. I don't remember this, but people afterward told me that when I couldn't open the door, I ripped it off the hinges. I jump into the car. For a few seconds, it's like there is no sound, no smell, everything is in slow motion. I can't explain it any other way."

Johnson managed to unbuckle the girl. He put her against his shoulder, carried her to the sidewalk and handed her to a woman who works in a nearby salon.

A Hero's Vision

Kenny Johnson, owner of Rizzo's French Dip in Ballard.
(Seattle Times photo/Steve Ringman)

Days passed, and Johnson went back to his routine.

That is, until Tuesday morning around 6, he says.

"My wife is next to me in bed. She's sleeping. Everything is where it's supposed to be," says Johnson. "Then there is this man standing right by the bed. He says he needs help with a few things. I say, 'OK.'

"Now, I know it's him (Kotowicz) even though the only time I had seen him was at the accident, when he didn't look, you know, normal. He says he wants me to give a message to his wife and to his daughter. That's private so I can't tell you about that message.

"He also tells me to talk to the people at Sub Pop, he wants to let them know not to be mad at the driver that caused the accident. That's his message."

Johnson says that later that day, he went to the Sub Pop website, and there it was, a memorial photo of the man who had stood by his bed: Kotowicz.

That same Tuesday, he went to the Seattle downtown headquarters of Sub Pop and met with the staff and told them about the vision.

The staff greeted with tears the man who had saved their co-worker's daughter.

Chris Jacobs, general manager at Sub Pop, says about the vision, "We're dumbfounded and rapt."

See also "What to make of a hero's vision" by Nicole Brodeur, Seattle Times staff columnist

Website: The Seattle Times