Greene's Corner reopens after car crashes storefront

Driver escaped with help of good Samaritans

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 21, 2013 

FERNDALE - The owners of Greene's Corner reopened for business Monday afternoon, Oct. 21, after a speeding car crashed into the front entrance and burst into flames Friday night, causing enough damage to close most parts of the store for the weekend.

Elix M. Ortiz-Rios, 43, of Bellingham was driving northbound on Northwest Avenue around 10 p.m. Friday when he failed to stop for a stop sign at Smith Road, braked, and skidded for about 200 feet, crashing into the storefront, according to the Washington State Patrol. He was speeding and driving under the influence, according to the state patrol.

On Monday afternoon, Ortiz-Rios remained in serious condition in the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, according to hospital officials. He was rescued by several good Samaritans who happened upon the crash at the popular store at exactly the right time.

Cody Hodges and his brother-in-law, Dave Rubel, both from Ferndale, happened to be driving home along Smith Road when they saw bystanders looking at the crash and pulled over, Hodges said. The two men ran over, checked to make sure that someone had called 911 - they had - and saw the car was steaming, Hodges said.

"I went to the passenger side, and I could not open the door," he said. "At that time it caught on fire."

The men quickly checked, but none of the doors would open. That's when Hodges said he saw Ortiz-Rios catch on fire. Hodges busted out the rear passenger's-side window with his foot, and he, Rubel and an EMT who happened upon the scene tried to pull Ortiz-Rios out, but his arm was tangled in the seatbelt, Hodges said.

"I could smell the skin burning," Hodges said. "We were able to turn him somehow and pull him out of there. His blood was all over me - he had a huge gash."

Just after the three pulled the driver out of the car, the interior burst into flames, which started to lick up the front of the building, Hodges said. They moved him down the street and covered his legs with a shirt because his pants had burned off, Hodges said.

Firefighters from District 7 responded and quickly put out the fire before it extended into the building, said Assistant Chief Larry Hoffman.

Hodges suffered a few cuts and was treated on the scene, and the other men were uninjured, he said. Hodges, who has no aid training, said he acted on impulse.

"I'm not going to just let somebody else die if there's a way I can help," he said. "If I were in that position, I'd hope somebody would do that for me."

The popular pizza and coffee shops inside the store were shut down by Whatcom County inspectors while a temporary retaining wall and a new front door were installed over the weekend, said Kristine Kager, who owns Fools Onion and the convenience store within the building with her husband, Lance Bailey. A reader board, some benches and some tables also were damaged, she said.

The large rollup door on the building was still boarded up with plywood on Monday afternoon.

The building owners had just moved in new refrigeration units, which were not damaged by the crash, on Friday, said Scott Hartwich, who owns Hammerhead Coffee with his wife, Mary Burwell. The owners and store managers had just closed down for the night and left the building 10 or 20 minutes before the crash, Hartwich said.

"What freaked us out so much was my wife, Mary, she sits in that corner all the time and does her marketing," Hartwich said. "That's what we're thinking about, and the driver."

About four months ago, the building had a near miss when another driver went through the same intersection and sideswiped the building, breaking some glass and outside structures, Hartwich said.

The convenience store is operating under normal hours again while the building owners and insurance companies sort out the construction plan, said Cedric Bailey, a dishwasher at Greene's Corner.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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