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River Hill High School teacher Justin Rix hailed as life-saver

Justin Rix, at his school desk, was surprised by the girls lacrosse team on May 11.
Justin Rix, at his school desk, was surprised by the girls lacrosse team on May 11. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

The collage that the Howard County Recreation and Parks fourth-grade UMBC lacrosse team presented to Justin Rix is made of pages ripped from a Spiderman comic book.

But the pasted cut-outs come together to form a bigger image of a real-life hero: Rix himself.

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On Friday, May 11, the girls, led by team mom Michelle Suazo, surprised Rix, who teaches Earth Science at River Hill High School, with the poster as a thank-you for pulling off the most heroic of feats: saving a life.

On the evening of April 24, Rix, 31, was driving to the grocery store from his home, in Cooksville. He and his wife had just put their two children to bed, and he was going out for a quick milk run.

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A few minutes earlier, Suazo's twin daughters, Olivia and Alexa, 10, had just got out of a lacrosse game at Western Regional Park, just off Route 97 in Glenwood. Three or four other games had ended at the same time, and Route 97 was clogged with a caravan of minivans and SUVs, all packed with families and kids in jerseys headed for Route 70.

A driver approached the long line of cars and crossed into oncoming traffic, hitting head-on a car being driven by 17-year-old Mount de Sales Academy senior Caroline Butler, the referee for Olivia and Alexa's lacrosse game. Butler was conscious, but trapped inside.

When Rix approached the accident scene and saw the smashed, smoking car, he pulled over to help. Two other men on the scene were busy trying to break in. After several desperate minutes without much luck, they were finally able to break open a back door window, after which Rix jumped in to free Butler.

Moments after he pulled her out, the car went up in flames.

"If he hadn't gotten in when he did, she would've been severely burned, or worse," said Suazo, who lost her 19-year-old brother in a car accident nine years ago. "It was a very close call, and just to know that somebody was able to forget about themselves and save another life was a sense of relief."

Butler is now at home recovering from the accident. She did not make the surprise visit to River Hill High School, she said, because she had not met Rix before. But her parents are planning to honor their daughter's rescuers with a private event, according to an email sent to Suazo.

"I just want to say thank you, because if it weren't for them I wouldn't be here," she said in an interview.

The driver of the car that hit Butler was taken to Howard County General Hospital with unspecified injuries, according to county police. She has been charged with negligent driving and failure to drive on the right side of the road. Because she is a juvenile, she was not identified.

'Seemed like forever'

Rix said his memory of the event moves as if in slow motion. "It seemed like forever," he remembered. "I thought when I got back, my wife would be wondering why I took so long, but she was like, 'Why are you back so soon?' "

He can't remember what the men used to smash in the back window, but some details, such as the color of the fire and rescue trucks that showed up — yellow — stand out vividly in his mind.

And he can't forget the eerie calm of the night around him.

"It was almost serene," he said. "There were no traffic noises, just the sound of a burning car. It was like sitting around a bonfire."

Mostly, he says, he felt the overriding urge to act.

"I was on auto pilot," he said. "I knew we needed to get her out of there."

Doug Scheuch, 38, was one of the other men who worked to rescue Butler. He had just gotten off a shift as a delivery man for Domino's Pizza, and pulled over to the side of the road to help out.

As he worked to get Butler out of the car, thoughts of his three children flashed through his mind.

"I have two younger girls and if they were to go through something like that I would just hope and pray that someone would stop and help them out," he said.

Suazo said the lacrosse team girls "were so excited to be abe to go there and thank (Rix). They had said that she (Butler) was just the nicest ref."

Rix, who has been in contact with Butler's family but hasn't had a chance to catch up with her face-to-face since the accident, said he still shakes when he talks about that night.

Ultimately, he says, he's just glad everything turned out OK.

"I woke up the next morning, thinking, 'That girl's going to see the same sun I see coming up,'" he said. "That's a great thing."

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