BELGRADE — Flames were already pouring out the back of the overturned, fuel-filled tanker truck when mail carriers Nick Claudel and Joe Arsenault and their fellow co-workers evacuated the nearby Belgrade post office on Jan. 2.

Despite the obvious potential danger posed by the burning tractor-trailer tanker, neither of them hesitated to cross the road and head for the cab of the truck, which had overturned after being struck by a sport utility vehicle on Route 27, when they realized there was someone still inside it.

“I didn’t know if it was a safe thing to do. We just knew there was someone who needed help,” said Claudel, 29, a part-time rural mail carrier who lives in Belgrade with his wife, Brooke, and two children. “We turned the corner and went straight to it, knowing somebody was still in the vehicle.”

He said the truck’s tires were still spinning when they approached it, and the pair could see flames starting to spread from the rear of the truck to the front. They said the driver, Mark Tuttle, 54, of Albion, was still in the cab, trying to grab a fire extinguisher, instead of getting out of the vehicle.

They got to him through the broken passenger-side windshield and pulled him out to safety.

“I said ‘You’ve got to get out of here,’ and grabbed him by the arm,” said full-time carrier Arsenault, 62, who lives in Farmington with his wife, Tina, and who has six children and nine grandchildren.

Claudel said the driver probably couldn’t see from the truck cab how big the fire engulfing the rear of the rig had become.

Once clear of the truck, they went back across the street and put some distance between them and the truck. Within less than a minute, Claudel said, the flames erupted, shooting some 50 feet into the air and turning into what Fire Chief Dan Mackenzie described as a wall of flames, unlike any other he’d seen in his 30 years fighting fires.

On Wednesday morning, Edward Phelan Jr., Northeast area vice president of operations for the U.S. Postal Service, and other postal service officials came to the Belgrade post office to meet and congratulate the two carriers.

The pair was praised for risking their lives to help get the driver out of the burning truck.

“You guys acted in an instant to save somebody’s life,” said Phelan, who works in Connecticut.

Claudel, asked why he and his co-worker went toward — not away from — the burning truck, said the military experiences and training both have gone through probably was a major factor in their taking action quickly.

Arsenault served in the Marine Corps 24 years ago, while Claudel served with the Maine Army National Guard, including a stint in Afghanistan.

“Both of us have a military background, and I think that training kicked right in, with the instinct to save a human life,” Claudel said.

The truck crash was so close to the post office that flames melted siding on the front of the building. To make sure it didn’t catch fire, firefighters hosed down the front of the structure.

At the direction of Postmaster Margaret Cosenza, the post office was evacuated as soon as the collision occurred.

Holding back tears, she said the day of the crash and the spectacular fire that followed it was an emotional day for everyone at the post office, and the employees’ acts were heroic.

“They’re my heroes as well. I’ll always have their backs,” said Cosenza, who was on only her second day on the job as postmaster in Belgrade when the incident occurred.

She said other workers at the post office, including Kathleen Mason, Trisha Davis and Matt Fortin, were unsung heroes that day, too. Despite evacuating the building immediately after the accident, later they still managed to get all the day’s mail out, despite having no electricity or heat at the post office for most of the day, because the fire melted power lines and knocked out electricity in much of the surrounding area.

“We got all the mail delivered, everybody came back safe, and we had no errors that day,” Cosenza said. “In a weird way we became united. We’re a very tight team.”

Postal officials also presented commemorative first responder stamp plaques to the postal workers, and to Mackenzie and Travis Burton, chief of the rescue service in Belgrade, to thank local first responders for extinguishing the blaze and preventing it from spreading to the post office.

Phelan, a volunteer firefighter for 25 years and fire chief in upstate New York, and whose son is currently a firefighter, said the postal service wanted to thank the volunteer firefighters, who “do what you do for nothing, because you want to help people.”

Burton and Mackenzie, meanwhile, returned the praise, noting Claudel and Arsenault had the driver out of the truck before firefighters even arrived on the scene.

“Awesome job, guys. You made a difference that day,” Burton said to the pair.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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