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'Call it leverage': Woodbury man describes highway rescue

Robert Renning can only guess how he summoned the strength to peel back a door on a burning car last weekend.

So if he had to attribute the lifesaving feat to anything, the Woodbury man said he’d put it on his job.

“I’m a mechanical engineer by trade,” the 52-year-old said, “so let’s call it leverage.”

Whatever the means, Minnesota State Patrol troopers are crediting Renning’s actions with saving the life of Minneapolis man Michael Johannes.

Renning and Johannes were southbound on Interstate 35W on Sunday, June 29, when a fire began spreading in Johannes’ vehicle. Both drivers pulled off to the shoulder and Renning rushed to the scene.

“I thought he’d already gotten out,” Renning said.

He hadn’t.

Renning found Johannes struggling to escape his SUV after the locks and power windows failed. The man unsuccessfully kicked at the passenger side window and was about to reach for a flashlight in the backseat as his last option to break the glass.

Johannes said he didn’t know Renning was on the other side of the window. He was busy holding his breath in the smoke-filled vehicle and about to make his move for the flashlight.

“I was about ready to lose my breath,” Johannes said.

Meanwhile, Renning could see flames licking up from under the vehicle.

“It quickly escalated,” he said. “I know how fast cars will burn, so I knew we had to get him out of there quick.”

So he did the first thing he could think of.

Renning laid his hands on the SUV’s passenger door and pried on it until the glass in the window shattered, allowing him to pull Johannes from the vehicle.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how” the door came off, Renning said. “I have no clue. Was it the smartest way to do it? I don’t know, but it worked.”

The SUV became engulfed in flames as the men watched from a ditch.

Johannes sustained minor injuries and smoke inhalation, according to troopers.

'He's my hero'

State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske called Renning’s actions “quite astonishing and impressive.”

“I don’t think it can be understated that he likely saved this gentleman’s life,” Roeske said.

The responding State Patrol trooper, Zachary Hil, said Renning performed “an extraordinary deed.”

“I feel this man deserves any and all commendation for his extraordinary life-saving measure that kept another from burning alive,” according to the patrol.

Johannes, who was returning from Wyoming, Minn., where he had dropped off his daughter at a family lake house, figures Renning’s actions happened about 30 seconds before things would have gotten dire.

“He’s my hero,” Johanne said. “I told him that.”

Renning deflected the praise, saying he “just happened to be the guy there at the time.”

“If someone else would have run up, they’d have done what they needed to do,” he said. “I know and work with a lot of people that would have done the same thing.”

Renning said that while he tries to stay “reasonably fit,” he’s no bodybuilder. Whether it was adrenaline or the intervention of a higher power, he is not sure.

He’s only happy that Johannes was able to escape and return to life with his wife and daughter.

Renning met on Tuesday, July 1, with Johannes and his family. The two men shared some food, a beer and “big hugs.”

“We’re going to be best friends,” Johannes said of Renner, describing a bond that was formed between the two of them during the episode.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation, but Johannes said he later learned that a recall had been issued for the SUV. He’s letting his insurance company sort out those details.

Still, “it shouldn’t have happened,” Johannes said.

Renning, a 24-year member of the Minnesota Air National Guard, said that while his military training likely informed his initial response to the crisis – alerting the authorities and rushing to provide aid – that training only goes so far.

“They don’t train us to pull people out of cars,” he said.

Renning, who was driving with his girlfriend, had been heading back from a friend’s cabin at the time of the fire. They picked up where they left off after being released from the scene.

First things first, Renning needed to pick up another friend from the airport. The friend had been alerted to the cause for the delay, but as he sat on an airport curb while Renning approached, the friend offered a comment that generated a laugh from Renning: “He says, ‘You better have a good excuse.’”

After that, Renning made it a point to unwind with a beer and a cigar on his deck back in Woodbury.

So would Renning do it all again if placed in the same scenario?

“I hope so,” he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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