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Friday, December 24, 2010

12/24/10 Christmas miracle? Good Samaritans save Greenwich couple

Craig and Debbie Walker Stapleton shudder at the sight of the insurance adjuster's photos of their Volvo station wagon, its front end charred beyond recognition.

The Greenwich couple -- he a former U.S. ambassador to France and the Czech Republic and she a second cousin of former President George W. Bush -- were on their way to New Haven for dinner Dec. 4 when their car started to smolder.

And they didn't even realize it.

Riding in the lane next to them on Interstate 95 near Exit 27 were William Claudio and Nelly Cruz of Bridgeport.

"My husband looked over and noticed the whole bottom of the car in flames," said Cruz, 35. "I rolled down my passenger window. I beeped the horn. So I'm telling them to pull over. I'm screaming at them. I'm going crazy."

Thanks to the quick-thinking good Samaritans -- one an out-of-work carpenter and the other a preschool teacher -- the Stapletons managed to escape.

"Within five minutes, this thing was engulfed," said Debbie Stapleton, 64. "The car was just incinerated."

It took a battalion chief, two engines and a ladder company half an hour to quell the inferno, according to Capt. Ed McCann of the Bridgeport Fire Department, which responded to the northbound shoulder of the highway at 6:27 p.m. Dec. 4.

The cause of the blaze is still under investigation.

The Stapletons, who have two grown children and three grandchildren, are calling it a case of divine intervention.

"It was a miracle. It was a Christmas miracle," Debbie Stapleton said. "It was a carpenter, his wife and baby. I love the symbolism."

The baby was actually the couple's 18-month-old godson, Leighlen Wyatt Morris, whom they were taking to Wal-Mart to buy Christmas presents.

Little did the immigrants from Puerto Rico know that they saved their greatest gift for perfect strangers.

"Our biggest concern was getting them pulled over and out of their car and safe," said Cruz, 35, who works at Tutor Time in Norwalk.

Not only did they flag the Stapletons down, but the good Samaritans waited with them until help arrived.

"I wasn't going to leave them until we knew that they were safe," said Cruz, who, coincidentally, shares the same first name as Debbie Stapleton's late grandmother.

The Stapletons bought the V70 station wagon eight years ago in Prague, where he was serving as ambassador at the time.

"It only had 40,000 miles on it," Debbie Stapleton said. "We kept that thing serviced."

Craig Stapleton, 65, said the steering wheel was acting strangely during the ride. Then, he noticed a funny odor that he brushed off as pollution. Never did he suspect that he and his wife were in imminent danger. When they finally did pull over, they thought they simply had a flat tire.

The two couples were reunited for the first time since the incident on Tuesday at Stapleton's Greenwich real estate management office.

"Thank you," Stapleton said, hugging both Cruz and Claudio, who is 36.

Cruz said she and her husband, who speaks little English, just reacted out of instinct.

"We don't consider ourselves heroes," Cruz said. "We were just placed at the right place at the right time. Really it wasn't our doing. It was God's."

A tearful Debbie Stapleton, who gave the couple a poinsettia basket and a gift certificate to a Norwalk restaurant, said she is forever indebted to the couple for saving her life and allowing her to spend more cherished time with her grandchildren.

"We were blessed by these Christmas angels," Stapleton said.


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