Coming to the rescue
Good Samaritans take risk to help strangers in distress
The day before Halloween in 2007, Sunnyvale resident Fred Burgener got the fright of his life. As he pulled up to a stoplight on Fair Oaks Boulevard in Sunnyvale, a grisly spectacle came running toward him: a terrified young girl, her face covered in blood, he said.
"I saw her running down the street. She was bleeding from her mouth and really shaken up," he said, recalling that she also had a black eye.
Jolted by what he saw, Burgener quickly stepped out of his car and made eye contact with her. He pointed to the vehicle, asking her if she wanted to get in. She did. Once she was inside, he tried to discern what had occurred.
"She just kept saying, 'Go fast, go fast,'" he said.
Burgener had happened upon the victim of a brutal sexual assault, beating and kidnapping that originated in Palo Alto.
He is one of hundreds of Bay Area residents who have come across acts of violence, accidents or lost and wandering persons and who stopped to help. These Good Samaritans could have turned away and not gotten involved — many times people do, said Cindy Hendrickson, Santa Clara County supervising deputy district attorney, who has prosecuted violent-crime cases in which people refused to aid victims and witnesses would not testify.
But people who have become rescuers instead stepped out of their comfort zones, in some cases risked their own lives in the process.
The 17-year-old Gunn High School student that Burgener helped had been kidnapped from her apartment-building garage. Her assailant — Todd David Burpee, a 2006 Palo Alto High School graduate — smashed her head on the pavement until she passed out, then dragged her into his gold, four-door, 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass and drove away. Beaten and sexually assaulted, she only escaped after he had parked his car and entered his Sunnyvale apartment. He assumed he had killed her during the attack, according to court papers.
He was later convicted of the crimes and received 43 years to life in prison.
Burgener testified at the trial. The day the girl ran toward him in many ways changed his life, he said. A self-described "ordinary guy with an ordinary life," he suddenly wound up in the media spotlight. There were microphones and cameras and a press conference with then-Palo Alto police Chief Lynne Johnson.
Googling his name, Burgener said it was surreal to find it connected with the words "attempted murder" and "rape" in articles about the crime.
He also paid a significant price for his good deed. On the day of the incident, he lost his job as a Union Pacific Railroad engineer because he was distracted by the events. He was not paying attention to safety procedures, he said. It took 11/2 years — including a second tour of duty in Iraq — before the union successfully got his job back.
Though random events suddenly pulled Burgener and other Good Samaritans into strange and traumatic, life-changing scenarios, many rescuers said helping someone during a crisis was the right thing to do. Their actions left them with a mix of emotions ranging from lingering regret and sadness to deep satisfaction, but faced with a similar situation, they would help again, they said.
Burgener recalled that once in his car, the girl slipped in and out of consciousness. He had trouble understanding her story because she was distraught and English was not her primary language, he said. As he heeded her warning to drive away from the scene, he called 9-1-1, he said.
He was also scared for himself, he said. He was a middle-aged man with a bleeding teenage girl in his car, and he didn't want police to think he committed the crime.
H also feared the girl's attacker might assault him, he said.
"I thought that somebody was pretty mean to do this. Someone who hurts a kid like that must be crazy — they are so small. I was terrified.
"I did a tour in Iraq. It's more normal to fight in a war than to have what happened to her happen at home. It is just so far out there," Burgener, a father of three, said.
Because of rush-hour traffic, Burgener went to his mother-in-law's house a few blocks away instead of to a hospital.
"The whole ordeal took just a few minutes, but it seemed like it took forever," he said.
Later, some family members admonished him for getting involved. His mother was also worried that Burpee would come after him, he said.
But Burgener said he would want someone to help his daughters if they were in a similar situation. He shrugged off fears that he could have been sued if something went wrong.
"For the average person, the chances of getting sued are small. The fears are minimal. But you are going to get your horror stories here or there," he said.
As Burgener entered a Santa Clara County Superior Court elevator after his testimony, he came face to face with the victim for the first time since the incident. But he did not attempt to talk to the girl. As she had throughout the trial, she had covered her face with her long hair and was still visibly traumatized. But he introduced himself to a victim's advocate who had supported the girl while she testified. The woman embraced Burgener, he recalled.
"I've had a pretty boring life," he said on a recent afternoon in Palo Alto. "Here I was having a press conference. Everyone I knew in the Army says I should get the Soldier's Medal for civilian heroic deeds.
"I got the glamour, and she got to pay the price," he said ruefully.
Hendrickson said prosecutors are frustrated when people won't help them prosecute crimes. Recently, "the sole eyewitness to a domestic violence (case) absolutely refused to testify. We had a long talk about following through," she said.
"I have seen cases where people turned victims away," she added.
At a 7-11 in Sunnyvale last year, the clerk refused to help a distraught sexual-assault victim, she said.
"The person said, 'Get out of my store.' He thought she was crazy," Hendrickson recalled.
But she praised Ferrolo Gagni, another convenience-store clerk, who did not turn away.
Working the graveyard shift at a 7-11 on Old Middlefield Way in Mountain View on Jan. 26, 2011, Gagni had plenty of reasons not to get involved with strangers. He has been the victim of three separate violent crimes in his 22 years working at 7-11 stores, he said.
Assailants pointed guns at him during two robberies. In the third, the thief pointed a 12-inch knife at his back.
"It was so long, I thought that if he stabs me here, I can see the knife if it goes through my stomach," he said.
But his life experiences have also given him reasons for compassion, he said.
When a hysterical woman in her 20s entered the store at 2:30 a.m. that January day, Gagni might have been forgiven for throwing her out. She was wearing only an oversized T-shirt and holding her shoes, he remembered.
Instead, he listened to what she said.
"Someone is trying to kill me," he recalled she said.
Gagni, 65, looked outside to make sure no one was following the woman. The car she had driven to get there had lost a tire, and she had been driving on the rim, he said.
He called 9-1-1.
"I had no doubt at all. It didn't enter my mind to push her out of the store," he said.
Gagni said he did not consider the consequences: He was responsible for doing his job, but he considered his greater duty to call the police and catch the criminal, he said.
A friendly, personable man, Gagni said he is never rough with customers. His is an occupation filled with late-night characters and people who get peeved when they can't buy beer after 2 a.m., he said.
"If you are behind the counter, you have to be polite and friendly and courteous — even if they are rude to you. It is not good to make an enemy of your customer," he said.
Police later arrested 36-year-old Walter Ray Slone for rape, kidnapping, sexual penetration, oral copulation and threats to commit a crime resulting in death or great bodily injury against the 23-year-old mother of three. It was a date that had gone terribly wrong.
Slone assaulted her repeatedly in his girlfriend's car in a Milpitas apartment-complex garage. The victim escaped by taking the car and speeding away when he got out. She ran over his foot as she drove off, according to a police report.
Gagni was entirely accommodating when asked to testify in court, Hendrickson said.
He was the first person on the witness stand. From his seat at the defense table Slone tried to intimidate him throughout his testimony, Gagni recalled.
"The guy looked at me and stared at me, and I stared at him, too. I still remember his face. I will never forget his face," he said.
Slone was convicted on all counts last Sept. 23. He was sentenced to 325 years to life in prison, with terms to be served consecutively, according to court documents.
Gagni said he can't imagine not helping someone in need. But he had some advice for people when confronted with a crisis: It is important to remain calm.
Even if the scope of the problem seems beyond one's capabilities, one should give the impression of being capable of offering aid. Then call 9-1-1, he said.
"Make a quick decision so that she or he knows when they approach you that you can give them help. They don't have to feel afraid anymore if you give that kind of assurance," he said.
To a dying 9-year-old boy, assurances were the only gift Palo Alto resident Bonnie Berg could offer, she said.
Four years ago she and her husband, David, came upon the tragic accident.
"It was the most dramatic and intense experience of my life," she said last week.
She and David were leaving Visalia after helping his mother pack up her house to move. Just moments after they said goodbye, a young driver who was talking on his cell phone had run a light, causing a truck to swerve to avoid him.
The truck, which contained three children and their father, flipped over. No one in the truck had been wearing a seatbelt. One of the passengers, a 9-year-old boy named Tanner, was thrown from the vehicle, which flipped on top of him, pinning him under the roof, Berg said.
"I immediately ran to the truck and knelt down into the cab. There was glass everywhere," she said.
Tanner's older sister was screaming his name. His older brother was in shock with a huge gash in his leg. Berg, a registered nurse, elevated the older boy's legs.
She tried to attend to Tanner. With only inches between them, she spoke soothingly to the little boy, trying to offer some comfort, even though she could not see any part of him except for his legs, she said.
Tanner's father stood away from the truck, too stunned to approach the horrific scene, Berg said. She called him over to be with his son, but he couldn't bear to stay amid the shrieks of his daughter and the sight of the crushed boy, she said.
Berg realized there was nothing she could medically do to help Tanner.
"My purpose was simply to be there with him in his last moments. I stayed with Tanner and asked that, if he could hear me, to move his legs — the only part of his body that was visible — and he did. Three times I made contact with him this way," she said.
Soon afterward, the children's mother arrived at the scene. Berg recalled the mother's cries when she saw her son pinned under the truck.
"Her deep wailing is unforgettable," Berg said.
When the police finally arrived, they told Berg to move.
"My only regret is that I did not tell them I had been in communication with Tanner. I think he actually died shortly afterward," she said.
The following week Berg and her husband returned to Visalia. As they rounded the corner of the scene of the accident, there were teddy bears and flowers and memorabilia in honor of Tanner. Berg gazed at a photo of Tanner in his soccer uniform.
"It was actually good to see his face, though hard. ... This experience deeply affected me, and I was emotionally disturbed for weeks afterward, going over the incident, wondering if I could have done anything more to help Tanner.
"I finally talked with a psychologist friend who suggested I do a ritual to have closure with it. And I did," she said.
Berg climbed a hill in Foothills Park, which is one of her favorite hiking spots. She came upon a flowering bush along a trail and picked a blossom for each person in the accident. She meditated, "talking" to each person, giving them encouragement, she said.
"I included everyone: the driver of the other car, the dad who neglected to have his kids buckle up, Tanner's siblings and then, his mother, who arrived on the scene minutes after the accident and learned that her baby was dead."
"Prayer is a form of energy. I wanted to release as much guilt as I could to lighten their load. I do feel like I'm really still connected to that little boy," she said.
Berg said she couldn't remember a time when she didn't have the urge to ease suffering. The eldest of seven siblings, she had looked after her younger brothers and sisters. As a 7-year-old, she would rush out with a washcloth and disinfectant, attending to the scrapes of her brothers and their friends as they raced down the hill in their go-carts, she said.
She still feels infused with the same feelings whenever she helps someone in need, she said.
"I have a very, very deep sense of purpose and a sense of satisfaction that I was able to make a difference in that moment. I have that sense that I have been able to do something meaningful for that person," she said.
Berg said she never worries about consequences.
"I just do what is needed in that moment. If I have any fallout from a situation, I'll deal with it as it comes up," she said. "If I saw somebody in need and I didn't help them, my inner life would feel very disturbed. I want to feel good about the choices I did not make," she said.
Lending a hand is an act of generosity, she added.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world. It's just the way I live my life. I give out, and it comes back to me. I don't give it out for that reason, but it's just what happens to me. There is a level of life that happens to me because I do extend myself. It's a generosity of life that is a full circle."
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.