To an ordinary person, it would have been the ultimate act of bravery.
But Sean Dugan isn’t your ordinary person, and he was just doing what his instincts taught him.
Dugan was driving home from a doctor’s appointment with his wife Sylvia and his 2-year-old daughter Angelina in May when he saw a car fire on Easton Road in Warrington. The Philadelphia firefighter immediately pulled over to see if anyone needed help.
He ended up making a heroic rescue.
“My wife is a social butterfly and when we were at the doctor’s, she talked to the receptionist for a while, and it ended up really being a good thing because it put us right there after it happened,” said Dugan, who grew up on the border of Port Richmond, Fishtown and Kensington and later lived in Parkwood before settling in Horsham. “I pulled up at a light and looked over and thought, ‘That just happened.’
“I peeled to the left and saw the car was on fire. I thought, ‘Holy God.’ I almost jumped out of the car without putting it in park. My wife yelled, ‘Put it in park!’ When I got over there, I see a mom taking her kids out of the rear driver’s side door and I saw the fire was contained in the engine.”
That’s when he heard something that made the adrenaline kick in and sent him into motion wearing nothing but shorts, a T-shirt and flip flops.
“The mom yelled, ‘My baby, my baby!’ The rear door was locked, so I checked the driver’s side door, where the woman’s mother was sitting,” Dugan said. “I dove through the door, I’m not getting beat up and I’m not taking heavy heat, but I wanted to do it quickly because I know it can go south pretty quickly. I look at the beautiful little girl looking at me. She wasn’t crying, she was confined to the child seat, so I’m taking her out and then her mom starts busting the window. So I yell, ‘I got her.’ Everyone was fine, no glass, no smoke, we’re good.
“Everyone was safe, and I was able to knock (the fire) out before the Warrington fire department got there. People watch movies and you think it’s going to blow up any minute, but I’m trained for this. So I got it out.”
Then he took inventory. And had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
The driver, Lorna Best, was shook up, but overall she was fine. Her baby, Gemma, didn’t have a scratch on her after Dugan pulled her out. Best’s mom, who was in the passenger seat, suffered bruised ribs, but was OK. And Best’s older child was shook up and had a cut on her face, but was overall OK.
That’s when the celebration began.
“There was another guy on the scene, his name was Leo Medwig, and he was helping before I got there,” Dugan said. “We were high fiving and hugging because everyone was OK. I stuck around to make sure everyone was OK, but once the police got there, I got out of there.
“I didn’t know it because I had to cross the street, so my wife was yelling. She didn’t know what happened, and my daughter was screaming my name. I got back and they didn’t know what happened, they couldn’t see it. I had to tell them. They had no idea because they were across the street, and it’s a very big street.”
He just wanted to celebrate with Medwig, but turns out the two had a mutual acquaintance and it ended up getting a huge award for Dugan.
He received the Firefighter of the Year award from the PFD Historical Corp. The honor was a great one, but it certainly wasn’t the gift Dugan wanted.
“All I wanted was Gemma to be safe, that was the only thing I wanted,” Dugan said. “But I’m talking to Leo, who is a Mayfair guy, and he says, ‘Do you know the McGuires?’ John McGuire is the chief at my station and that dude Leo grew up with him. That’s how everyone found out about it. I didn’t tell anyone. To me, it was just doing what I’ve been trained to do.”
It may have been an ordinary day for Dugan, but it wasn’t for Best.
“I can’t even explain the emotion,” Best said. “I felt relief. I was worried about everyone, my other kids because my 4-year-old split her chin really bad, and my mom was having a hard time breathing, but everyone is fine now.
“I call Sean my extended family now. I don’t think he realizes how grateful we are. It was great because this was during a time when COVID cases were high, and he didn’t care. He jumped in the car, grabbed my daughter, hugged her, hugged me. He only wanted to do good. In this world, it’s really surprising how someone would do that, but he did.”
It didn’t just impress those involved in the accident.
“Sean is being recognized today not just for his heroic actions off-duty during an emergency incident, but for all the other things he does for our department,” Fire Commissioner Adam K. Thiel said during the ceremony. “Sean helps take care of all of us, body and mind, as we take care of others.”
That’s been Dugan’s life ever since he joined the fire department, and he shared the award with his brothers and sisters.
“I just accepted this award on behalf of the Philly Fire Department,” Dugan said. “I’m in Southwest Philadelphia, Engine 68, Ladder 13, Battalion 7 and Medic 3 is the ambulance. The guys I work with both past and present have a special place in my heart. Especially the C platoon.
“I wouldn’t have gotten this award if it wasn’t for John McGuire and Capt. Joseph Michael Conroy, who put in all the paperwork. They were the ones who pushed this through. I was just happy Gemma was OK and I was impressed with everyone else who was on the scene. This was a total team effort.
“My reasoning for being in public service are my uncle John Gallagher, of Fishtown, and my grandfather Luke Hanahan, who are both retired Philly police officers, and my cousin John Founds, an Army vet who did a tour in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“And I’m really lucky to have my wife. I’m a believer that behind every man is a better woman, and she’s the best. And now I have two girls, my wife and my daughter. They’re both perfect.”
Dugan is also a hero away from the department. And when he’s not saving lives or putting out blazes, he’s at his alma mater Roman Catholic, where he serves as an assistant soccer coach and the strength and conditioning coach for the team that he played for before graduating in 2001.
“I was very lucky as a kid to have a lot of great coaches, so I wanted to do it for the kids,” said Dugan, who was the MVP of the Southern Division his senior year and played for Cabrini College. “I was in their shoes before. I was a good soccer player, but I peaked in high school because I made some decisions I shouldn’t have. I played in college, but I showed up out of shape and not ready to play. I got by, and got a degree, but I didn’t do what I should have. I like that I have a chance to help these kids now.”
In fact, the same day he won the award, he went home, got changed and then hit the soccer field at a Cahillites practice. And when he’s not helping Roman athletes, he’s helping out as a member of the Philly Firefighter motivated fitness club.
Dugan hopes to continue to help people through his jobs and volunteer efforts.
The way he sees it, he’s not doing anything special. He’s just trying to do good, something he’s done his entire life and even more so since he became a firefighter..
“I kind of always been a guy who was interested in giving back to others, but (becoming a firefighter was) dumb luck,” Dugan said. “My buddy Johnny Dooley convinced me to take the test, I scored well and I’ve been doing it ever since.
“I probably wasn’t doing that well in my life, not a lot of opportunities are knocking because I wasn’t living the right way. Firefighters is about brotherhood and it drives that home. The kids from Fishtown are lifelong buddies. I’ve had that since we were kids. So the adjustment wasn’t hard because I grew up with the ball busting and the camaraderie. It’s been perfect for me.
“United we stand, divided we fall. A lot of people talk about how divided the world is, but this shows you it’s not. We all joined together to help someone in need. Everyone played their role perfectly. We’ll be friends forever.”