LEE COUNTY — Pamela Jones-Morton was on her way to a Christmas party when she glanced up in time to see a sport utility vehicle cross traffic and hit the driver's side of the convertible in front of her.
The 64-year-old Estero resident and Lover's Key State Park volunteer slammed on her brakes and ran from her car, first to the convertible, from which she was amazed to see two people emerge unharmed. She looked up Hickory Boulevard to the SUV, where she noticed flames coming out of a hole. And, without thinking, she ran toward it.
Peering in the driver's side window, Jones-Morton saw a woman.
"She said 'Help me,' " Jones-Morton recalled. "And I said 'I will, I will, I will.' "
In the minutes that followed that day, Dec. 10, Jones-Morton crawled into the car through its back hatch. Time seemed to have stopped as the retired educator pulled the woman's grandchild from a car seat in the back and then unlocked the woman's seat belt and helped her to safety — all while flames licked at the vehicle.
Almost a month later, Jones-Morton's actions were recognized Monday by the Bonita Springs Fire Department, which awarded her the department's first Medal of Valor, in conjunction with the Lee County Sheriff's Office.
Many men and women whose jobs mean risking their lives to protect others say they do it to make a difference, to help others, Bonita Springs Fire Rescue Lt. Steve Bunn told the small group gathered Monday evening.
"The question arises, what happens when it's not your job?" he said. "This is the lady that did make a difference. Pam's brave actions that day made a difference and saved two lives."
By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, the SUV was engulfed in flames.
"I hope nobody's in there," were firefighter Jared Carrey's initial words.
The firefighters hosed it off and looked through the window. They were amazed to see no one was inside.
"We looked inside and thought 'Where are they?' " Bunn said.
They saw the woman and child on the other side of the bridge, being treated by paramedics. Soon after, Bunn ran into Jones-Morton and heard the story.
"Can you imagine that?" he said of her actions. "It's a tear-jerker when you think about it. We get paid to do this and she's not."
Asked why she decided to help, Jones-Morton had a simple answer.
"There was somebody in need," she said. "And I hope if I'm in need, somebody will help me. I believe that you pay it forward — you do what you can do to help other people."
Jones-Morton said her legs were "like jelly" after she helped the two out of the vehicle and returned to her car. She started to cry.
"People helping me said 'What's wrong?' I said 'I hope I got everybody,' " Jones-Morton said.
She had. And if she hadn't been there, Bunn said the woman and child likely would have died.
Jones-Morton didn't meet them and, because she was so focused that day, said she wouldn't recognize them if she came across them. She said she's just glad no one was severely injured, and that she'll never forget seeing the first flames coming from the back of the SUV.
Earlier in the day Monday, she told Bunn she was nervous to receive the award. The two hugged after the presentation.
"It's an honor," Jones-Morton said. "It's a true honor to be considered to have contributed in such a manner."