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Mansfield waitress praised after pulling injured driver from burning car
Keelyn Harper
Friends and family members are calling Keelyn Harper a hero for pulling a driver from a burning car after it wrecked on the side of County Hwy. 213 June 10. - photo by Special to The News

MANSFIELD, Ga. — Keelyn Harper says she does not know why she chose County Hwy. 213 rather than her usual route home from her job in Mansfield last week.

When she saw a fire off the side of the road that turned out to be a woman trapped in a burning vehicle, she knew she had to help when other passing motorists chose not to.

“That’s when I was kind of like, ‘It’s just me. I have to do something,’” Harper said.

Friends and the victim’s family were praising the waitress at Rooster’s Drive Inn after she was able to pull the badly injured driver from her car after it struck a tree and caught fire on the side of Hwy. 213 near Mansfield June 10.

Rooster’s owner Kenny Anderson called Harper “a true hero.”

“She would have surely burned to death if it had not been for Keelyn,” he said. 

Harper, 22, said she decided to help the victim because she would want someone else to do the same if it had been her daughter in the car.

“I have a 1-year-old daughter … I guess my ‘fight or flight’ took over,” she said.

The Eastside High School graduate had just finished her shift at Rooster’s and was traveling on Hwy. 213 on June 10 at around 9:30 p.m. when the incident began.

She said she usually took a more direct route than Hwy. 213 to the home she shares with her daughter west of Covington.

“I don’t know why I went that way,” she said.

What she thought was a brush fire on the side of the road caught her attention, Harper said.

She stopped her vehicle and noticed the fire was on a car that was not moving after traveling down an embankment on the side of the rural road.

Harper said she called 911 and told another motorist who also had stopped about making the call. The other motorist drove off rather than also stopping to help, she said.

“That’s when I was kind of like, ‘It’s just me. I have to do something,’” Harper said.

She said she walked to the car, saw the driver’s side window was open, but initially did not believe anyone was in the vehicle because the fully inflated air bag filled the interior.

Harper then was able to pull back the air bag and see the driver, Ashley Strawn of Mansfield, was trapped inside and bleeding heavily.

The car was pointed at a downward angle and Harper said she was unable to open the driver’s side door. 

“The whole car was like it had run off the side of a cliff,” Harper said. “It was completely embedded into the woods.”

She then quickly worked her way through some bushes and branches on the other side and was able to pry open the badly damaged passenger side door.

The victim’s leg was caught in the gas pedal area on the floor, she said. Harper said the heat from the fire was getting more intense and she told the victim — who was barely conscious — she would remove her from the vehicle.

“I told her it was going to hurt and I’m sorry,” she said. “But I grabbed her and I pulled her out.”

Others had stopped to see what was happening but apparently did not want to help out of fear of what the growing fire might do, Harper said. 

She said she was unable to muster the strength to carry Strawn by herself up the embankment. They then sat between the car and branches as it continued to burn — hoping help would arrive soon, Harper said.

“We just sat there and I just prayed and prayed that it would not blow up on us,” she said. 

“I don’t think she was really comprehending the situation, which is understandable,” Harper said. “I held her and rubbed her hair and told her it was going to be OK.”

Help arrived in the form of a Newton County sheriff’s deputy and other first-responders who put out the fire and transported the victim in serious condition to Atlanta Medical Center, a Newton County Sheriff’s Office report stated. The sheriff's office confirmed Harper's story.

The victim’s boyfriend, Troy Anderson, told The Covington News that Strawn had driven to a nearby store and was “35 seconds” from the home they shared on Hwy. 213 when she apparently swerved to miss a deer and ran off the road in the rural area.

He said she was “recovering” at the Atlanta hospital following surgeries to repair a broken neck and back. She also had a punctured lung and numerous cuts on her face he said may have been the result of striking the windshield.

Strawn’s sister, Shannan, said on Facebook that her whole family thanked Harper and “appreciates her saving my sister.”

Troy Anderson said he and Strawn’s family had been in close contact with Harper through the ordeal and hoped he could somehow pay her back for her efforts.

“I think that that girl was amazing,” he said.