MARANA, Ariz. — It was a moment that changed Ronaldo De la Ree’s life, but for several months he did not know who saved his unconscious body from a fiery car wreck.
“People say I’m lucky,” he said. “I say I’m blessed. It was just amazing how I got saved.”
On Monday, De la Ree met the two men who saved his life at the Western Army Aviation Training Site about 30miles northwest of Tucson, Ariz.
Sgt. Kyle Stephens, 25, and Spc. Michael Knight, 23, both Nevada Army Guard Lakota flight mechanics and North Valleys High School graduates, were deployed last summer in Arizona working border patrol missions at the WAATS.
Stephens and Knight, avid fishermen, spent early morning hours of June 1, 2015 casting lines at Sweetwater Wetlands Park just outside Tucson.
“We were told at night, that’s when the catfish bite,” Knight, a mechanic with the Las Vegas-based B Company, 3/140th Aviation unit, said when asked why he was fishing so early in the morning on his day off.
At about 2:15 a.m., a “flash of light by the road” caught their attention, Knight said. Stephens ran to the blaze as Knight drove to the scene. Both arrived at about the same time, less than a minute after hearing the single-vehicle crash.
“At first we didn’t know it was a car,” Stephens said. “We just saw the flash from the power lines being knocked down.”
De la Ree was alone in his Ford Taurus with his feet positioned in the passenger seat and his upper body against the steering wheel, according to a Tucson Police Department report. He broke his shoulder, ribs and fractured his back.
As Knight phoned dispatch, Stephens moved De la Ree from the car as flames grew and power lines sagged.
De la Ree said he was drunk and does not remember the moments leading up to the accident.
“My shoulder is my main injury now,” he said. “I could barely lift one pound two or three months ago. I’m improving a lot.”
De la Ree received three-year probation for DUI, he said. He’s stayed sober since the crash, he said, and has since started working at a restaurant in Oro Valley. He no longer lives out of his car and recently regained custody of his three children who were with him for the meeting on Monday.
He discovered who saved him earlier this year after reading a Nevada National Guard press release online.
“Before the accident I was a party animal,” De la Ree said. “Whenever my kids were away, I was always looking for the next drink…Now I try to keep busy and help my family. I even started selling Mary Kay (cosmetic products) for a second job.
“I get laughed at (for selling Mary Kay). does discourage me a little. Some of my friends make fun of me, but in the end, they don’t pay my bills. They can laugh all they want. I just keep going.”
As for Stephens and Knight, they’ve since returned to Arizona for their second border mission deployment. The mission provides aerial detection and monitoring support for U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Their current deployment is scheduled to end in June.
On Monday, Brig. Gen. Michael Hanifan, commander of the Nevada Army Guard, was in Arizona for the meeting to thank the soldiers and commend them for their lifesaving effort.
De la Ree admitted he was nervous meeting Stephens and Knight. The stoic soldiers said they felt uncomfortable fielding questions from local reporters. Stephens and Knight said they were just doing what they thought was right when they entered the burning vehicle to save De la Ree — “nothing special.”
“I’m just surprised this all happened,” Stephens said. “Really, we were just fishing. We didn’t expect this at all.”
Afterward, the owner of El Charro Café, the restaurant where Ree works, served the two soldiers a free meal.
“Not one day goes by that I’m not thankful that I’m still here for my three children,” De la Ree said. “I’m thankful for these two soldiers — my two guardian angels.”