Harli White was still on fire when Donnie Ray Crawford helped pull her from the burning race car.
Crawford pounced on the 12-year-old girl, trying to smother the flames.
"I thought for sure I was smothering a dead girl,” said Crawford, who was strapped into his race car waiting for another race to begin when he saw the smoke.
Harli had been inside the sprint car since it burst into flames minutes earlier on the fourth turn of the I-44 Speedway at SW 149 Street on Saturday. It was her first race.
Witnesses hailed the efforts of Crawford, 20, and others who helped pull her from the fire, including her father.
Today, the Lindsay girl has third-degree burns over half her body and is recovering from surgery at a children's burn center in Texas.
"I think it was a miracle of God, really,” her father, Charlie White, said of her survival.
The owners of the racetrack refused to comment on the incident. Children as young as 6 years old regularly race high-powered vehicles at the family-oriented track.
Crawford said he doesn't blame the racetrack for what happened to Harli, but hopes the incident helps set a higher precedent for safety at tracks nationwide.
Both Harli and Crawford were wearing fireproof suits, but Crawford's was thicker.
‘Never seen a fire like that'
The White and Crawford families both have racing roots stretching back generations, so Crawford didn't think much of it when word of a fire crackled through the radio Saturday night. Small fires are common at racetracks, he said.
It took the screams of a panicking man in the pit area to get Crawford's attention. Harli was trapped in the burning car.
"I just jumped out of my car and ran over there as fast as I could,” Crawford said. "When I got there, I'd never seen a fire like that.”
"It was the most horrific thing I've ever seen. No one should ever have to see something like that,” said Scott Waddell, who has two daughters who have raced at the track. "It just erupted ... it was like it had an endless supply of fuel.”
Waddell could feel the heat of the fire from the stands.