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How a Navy Vet Turned Firefighter Rescued Plane Crash Victims

Despite being off duty, John Meffert was first on the scene

As Navy veteran and off-duty firefighter John Meffert drove along Interstate 405 in Los Angeles, he had no idea he would soon be responding to a plane crash and saving the lives of the aircraft’s passengers.

One day in 2017, while southbound on I-405, Meffert noticed a low-flying plane to his left. It continued to descend closer to the freeway, eventually clipping his car before it crashed on the road.

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“After pulling over several lanes and backing up towards the crash, I’m looking at the plane, and then I see a head pop up. And in that moment, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s somebody alive,’ ” Meffert said.

Using his experience and training as a Navy hospital corpsman turned firefighter, which included runway crash recovery, Meffert was able to rescue Frank and Janan Pisano, the only passengers on the small plane.

A heroic rescue

Despite being trapped inside the aircraft, Frank, fearing an explosion, urged his wife to free herself and flee. But Janan refused to leave without him. Then Meffert pulled her to safety.

He returned to the aircraft to free Frank, whose legs were wedged under the control panel. After pulling him out, Meffert tapped the bottom of Frank’s feet to make sure they still responded to touch and could move on their own.

“That’s the last thing I remember for six days,” Frank said.

Janan spent two weeks in the hospital, while Frank spent four. Upon returning home, both Pisanos had to wear back braces for four months.

During the Pisanos’ recovery, a friend of theirs reached out to Meffert, asking if he would like to meet the people he had rescued. He said he would.

“John was here all the time. He would pop in just to sit in the backyard and chat,” said Janan.

Today, Frank, 68, Janan, 61, and Meffert, 53, share a strong friendship, meeting several times a month and even traveling together.

“We went through something so difficult and so dangerous, and came so close to death. Nobody else was injured, which is just miraculous,” said Janan. “Now when I look back, I smile and think, Okay, if we made it through that, whatever life throws at us, we’ll probably be alright.

A mission to help others

“I’ve always been very into taking care of people, especially seniors,” he said. “I grew up with my grandparents around quite a bit. So, initially, I thought I wanted to become a physical therapist. Being a hospital corpsman was one of those avenues that would maybe achieve that goal for me.”

In 1989, at age 18, Meffert joined the Navy and was stationed in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where he received training in air operations and how to treat pilots who had been in crashes. Later, during the Gulf War, he was assigned to work in the ICU on the USNS a hospital ship.

“I found a new love, a love for ‘Mercy medicine,’ and it gave me the ability to serve people more and in a way that was true caretaking of individuals at crisis or in a true need,” he said.

After seven years in the Navy, Meffert joined the Avalon Fire Department on California’s Catalina Island, where he eventually became a captain and continues to help others.

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