On the left, Rebecca Neal with her dog, Bella; on the right, the scene of a car fire near Paradise Road on November 17 where Neal helped pull a man safely away from the burning vehicle. | Credit: Ryan Cruz

When Santa Barbara native Rebecca Neal was driving through the mountains on Highway 154 near Paradise Road in the early evening of November 17, she suddenly found herself playing the unlikely hero when she was one of the first on the scene of a vehicle rollover in which the driver was trapped inside his own burning car.

“He was screaming. He was on fire,” Neal said.

According to witnesses at the scene, two men had worked to free the driver from his seatbelt, but as the fire grew from the engine to engulf the cab, the men sustained burns and backed away. The driver was eventually able to free himself through the windshield when Neal arrived.

“His shoes were burned off,” she said.

Without thinking twice, Neal jumped into action, helping the other good samaritans pull the man safely away from the wreckage and scrambling to grab water bottles to put out the fire that had taken over his lower half.

For the next few minutes, Neal sat with the driver, speaking with him and keeping him conscious. She couldn’t think about anything else except making sure the man would be able to make it home to his family.

“I just hope somebody would do the same for me,” she said.

Neal’s actions are made even more heroic taking into consideration what she’s been through herself in the past few years. She’s fallen on hard times recently, and since this past July, she has been living out of her car with her 2-year-old dog, Bella.

Neal had lived most of her life in Santa Barbara — attending Roosevelt Elementary, Santa Barbara Junior High and High School, and graduating from UCSB before starting her own business up north — but recently found herself losing friends, family, and work in rapid succession, eventually ending up in the streets, living in her car.

She soon found how difficult it was for the homeless community in Santa Barbara. Several resources were only available for those in dire situations, she said, those with either heavy addiction or health problems. Since she was relatively healthy and recently homeless, she felt that she was completely on her own without the help of these resources.

She also fears for her safety and said being in the streets opened her eyes to the indifference of the world around her. In an effort to avoid being hassled by police or others on the streets, Neal often drove up into the mountains, sleeping curled up in her car with Bella by her side.

“I feel bad sometimes ’cause I want to give her more,” Neal said. “I’m all she has, and she’s all I have.”

She said she often feels like Santa Barbara has changed from the “happy and welcoming” community she used to know in her youth into a cold and uncaring one where those on the fringes are shunned and kept out of sight and out of mind.

A week after the incident, Neal is still coughing and feeling the effects of the burns. She was transported to the hospital that night but sent back on the street within 12 hours.

She’s afraid that she is going to have to leave the area to get the proper help she needs, a fact she says is disappointing because she considers Santa Barbara her home.

“It’s just tough here,” she said. “I might have to leave the state to get help.”

But even through the hardships, Neal finds things to be thankful for during the holiday season. Another man who was at the scene of the fire near Paradise Road, Randal Jackson, took both her car and dog overnight while she was at the hospital.

“I’m so thankful for him and his wife,” Neal said.

Jackson, who said the car fire was “the most horrific scene” he’d ever witnessed, said that Neal was the only one who was willing to fight through the “intense heat” to get to the driver, whose legs “were literally on fire.”

“She used the water she had in her car to cool the man off and put out the flames on his clothes,” Jackson said. “I think this is an amazing and uplifting story of heroism.”

The driver was treated for “critical burn injuries,” according to Santa Barbara County Fire spokesperson Captain Scott Safechuck, and is expected to make a full recovery.

“I’m just happy he got to go be with his family,” Neal said.

Since the incident, the Jackson family set up a GoFundMe page to help Neal recover from her injuries and find a more reliable vehicle. Within a few days, the page received enough support for Neal to receive treatment for laryngitis she was suffering from due to smoke inhalation, and to cover a few nights in a motel for her and Bella while she recovered.

According to an update from Jackson, a local car dealership saw her story and offered to repair and perform maintenance on her vehicle, while others have offered assistance in finding employment or housing.

“I’m happy to report she is now feeling much better,” Jackson wrote. “It has been deeply moving to see the community step up to help this courageous, compassionate, and beautiful person. You have truly made a difference.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect details from several witnesses at the scene of the incident and to include an update on Neal’s recovery since the incident.

Support the Santa Barbara Independent through a long-term or a single contribution.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.