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CRASH UPDATE: Eyewitnesses pull girl from burning vehicle

Smoke rises from the scene of a head-on collision Wednesday about six miles south of Mitchell on state Highway 37. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 3
A firefighter works near a burned van at the scene of a head-on collision Wednesday, six miles south of Mitchell on state Highway 37. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 3
From left, Corey Ramold, Abby Albin and Brandon Sandoz, speak to the media Thursday at Mitchell Technical Institute. The three MTI students helped rescue a girl from a burning vehicle after a Wednesday head-on highway collision south of Mitchell. (Anna Jauhola/The Daily Republic)3 / 3

A group of Mitchell Technical Institute students and others worked together to pull a little girl from a burning vehicle Wednesday following a head-on collision on state Highway 37 that resulted in two deaths.

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The accident occurred around 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, between 261st and 260th streets on Highway 37, about six miles south of Mitchell. Two adults died and a young child was injured. Authorities had not released the names of any of the victims as of Wednesday night, pending the notification of relatives.

Brandon Sandoz, a 19-year-old MTI student from Valentine, Neb., said he and his friend, Corey Ramold, 18, of O'Neill, Neb., and Sandoz's girlfriend, Abby Albin, 20, of Emery, were on their way to Nebraska. They saw what Sandoz described as “a big dust cloud” when a red pickup and a white van collided.

The state Department of Public Safety later said a southbound 2006 Saturn Relay drifted into the northbound lane and collided with a northbound 2004 GMC Sierra pickup. Neither of the drivers of the vehicles was wearing a seat belt, the department said; no official information about the girl's seat belt was released, but onlookers said she was in a car seat.

Sandoz, Ramold and Albin pulled over after seeing the crash and ran to the vehicles. Sandoz said he immediately realized the gravity of the situation.

Brandon Sandoz“When we ran up there, the first thing I did was looked underneath the van and realized there was a gas leak,” Sandoz said. “Yeah, we knew there was a danger doing it, but as long as we got that little girl out, we felt a little bit of relief.”

Sandoz said while Ramold checked on the driver of the pickup, a man, Sandoz checked on the occupants of the van: a woman driver and a little girl, believed to be about 3 years old. Sandoz said the woman did not have a pulse, but the little girl did.

“I got her out as quickly as I could,” he said.

Sandoz said he put the little girl on the tailgate of Ramold’s pickup, and Albin stayed with her while Ramold and Sandoz went back and attempted to extricate the other driver. But by then, Sandoz said, it was too late to get to the driver of the van.

“The van was completely engulfed in flames, so we couldn’t get her out,” he said.

Noticing a gas leak running along the ground between the two vehicles, Sandoz said he and Ramold worked with about three other witnesses, some of whom Sandoz believed to be farmers from the area, to separate the vehicles. He said they hooked a chain up to a pickup and dragged the crashed pickup into the east ditch.

“We pulled it into the ditch so we could keep it from blowing up like the van did,” he said.

Still working together, Sandoz said they tried to contain the flames and get the driver, an elderly male, out of the pickup. When they got the man out, Sandoz said they started doing chest compressions, and paramedics arrived shortly thereafter.

“A minute to two minutes after we got the man out, his pickup went up in flames,” Sandoz said. “We kind of made it a personal goal to get the man out, and we did successfully get him out.”

The smoke from the flames could be seen from miles away, and traffic was diverted by emergency workers. Soon after, Sandoz said, firefighters arrived and extinguished the flames.

The girl was taken to Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell and then transported to a Sioux Falls hospital. The state Department of Public Safety described her as "seriously injured." Identifying the driver of the van was impossible at the scene, Sandoz said.

“The van was so burned that there was no way to figure out -- there was no registration or anything,” he said.

No further information from law enforcement was immediately available.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol is investigating. The Davison County Sheriff’s Office, Mitchell Fire Department and Ethan Fire Department assisted at the scene.