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NDSU football players helped save family from burning vehicle in West Fargo crash

Bison sophomores Logan Kopp, Ryan Jones, Chris Harris, Brayden Weber and Alex Oechsner said instinct took over as the rushed to the car that had been rear-ended by another driver during a police chase. The mother and her two children escaped with minor injuries.

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From left to right, North Dakota State University football players Brayden Weber, Ryan Jones, Chris Harris, Alex Oechsner and Logan Kopp talked with The Forum at The Bridges Student Apartments on Wednesday, July 20, about how they helped rescue a family from a burning car that was struck by another vehicle on July 15 in West Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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WEST FARGO — When five North Dakota State University football players saw a vehicle catch fire after being smashed from behind last week in West Fargo, their instincts took over and they rushed to save the family inside.

“In the moment, the last person we were thinking about was ourselves,” NDSU linebacker Logan Kopp said Wednesday, July 20, in an interview with The Forum.

Kopp, Ryan Jones, Chris Harris, Brayden Weber and Alex Oechsner, all sophomores, were among those who witnessed the July 15 crash. The Bison teammates pulled 29-year-old Watta Davis from her burning vehicle, used a fire extinguisher to keep the blaze under control and helped police extract the woman’s trapped 6-year-old daughter from the vehicle.

The crash happened as West Fargo Police officers chased 32-year-old Matthew Garcia of Amarillo, Texas, according to a criminal complaint. Police responded around 11:30 p.m. to a report of a reckless driver in the Red River Valley Fair parking lot.

Garcia allegedly fled in a vehicle from officers and ran a red light at 15th Street West to drive east on Main Avenue, according to court documents. Police believe he was driving 65 mph in a 45-mph zone while aggressively changing lanes, the documents said.

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As the driver sped down Main Avenue, the five football players met up at Sandy’s Donuts in West Fargo after a concert at the Red River Valley Fair, Kopp said.

That's when they heard a car screeching toward them, Jones said. The NDSU football safety said he saw a vehicle out of the corner of his eye speeding towards the Sheyenne-Main intersection before hearing a loud boom. The vehicle that Garcia allegedly hit spun across the intersection and caught fire immediately, Jones said.

“The whole thing looked like a scene from a movie,” Bison cornerback Oechsner said. “There were streaks of fire across the pavement that we all could see. The cars were spinning, smoke everywhere. It was wild.”

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North Dakota State University football player Logan Kopp helps pull a woman out of her car Friday, July 15, in West Fargo after another driver rear-ended it, causing it to catch fire. Kopp and four of his teammates helped rescue a family from the vehicle.<br/><br/>
Submitted Photo

One of Davis’ daughters was able to climb out of the vehicle on her own as Kopp, Harris and Weber rushed to the car. Oechsner said he went to a nearby laundromat to grab a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.

“It was a split second. We just ran there,” Bison linebacker Weber said. “I instantly knew that those people needed help.”

Harris, a wide receiver, said the mother was passed out in the car, and the driver-side door was jammed.

“So we had to get her to crawl over to us and carry her out,” Harris said.

Jones and Oechsner sat with the girl who got out, Oechsner said. The men thought they were done when they got Davis out, but then the mother asked where her other daughter was at.

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“We looked in the backseat and her daughter's just pinned between the front seat and the back seat because the whole backside was crushed,” Harris said.

The teammates said they worked to try to get the young girl out of the vehicle, breaking windows. Kopp said he accidentally ripped the handle off of a door.

“The smoke was coming in, and the flames were creeping,” Jones said. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. Are we going to be able to get out in time, are we about to watch something really bad happen right in front of us?'"

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From left to right, North Dakota State University football players Ryan Jones, Chris Harris, Logan Kopp, Brayden Weber and Alex Oechsner talk with The Forum at The Bridges Student Apartments on Wednesday, July 20, about how they helped rescue a family from a burning car after it was struck by another vehicle on July 15 in West Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Police arrived and used a crowbar to get the girl out, Weber said. The family escaped with minor injuries, while some officers were checked for smoke-related injuries, the police said.

Garcia allegedly fled on foot but was arrested. He faces several charges, including reckless endangerment and driving under the influence.

West Fargo Police Chief Denis Otterness said he was unaware of the NDSU football players helping at the scene, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case.

“Being a Bison alumni, that makes me pretty proud,” he said.

Otterness said he was happy that multiple agencies and citizens aided in the rescue, calling it a community effort. He said he was glad that the incident turned out as positively as it did. The situation was minutes, if not seconds, from turning into something worse.

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“We’re thankful for everyone that stopped,” Otterness said.

Harris said he wasn’t worried about the vehicle exploding. While it crossed Weber’s mind, he said it was more important to help the people in the burning vehicle.

Kopp said he believes anyone in that scenario would have done what they did. Oechsner noted they could have been the ones who were hit in the crash, adding he would want someone to help him if he was in that situation.

“No one’s going to look at a little girl in a burning car and run away,” Jones said.

Attempts to reach Davis were unsuccessful.

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April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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