CHAMPAIGN — Trapped between two semitrailers, surrounded by flames and smoke, as diesel fuel spilled out and began to pool under his Pontiac G6, Mark Rogers shoved open his passenger side door, leapt out and rolled over in the grass to smother the flames on his body.
Then he went back.
He jumped on the hood, smashed the windshield. First, he pulled out his son, then his daughter, who moments ago had been crouched on the car's floorboards holding a burning blanket. The third time back, he held out a scorched arm to his wife and helped her out of the burning car.
Nearly five years later, after being presented with a medal for his valor Thursday, Rogers deflected any accolades.
When he heard he would receive the award, "I was floored," Rogers said. "I thought, I didn't do anything special."
He did "what any father would have done," Rogers said. "I wasn't planning on leaving there without them."
Rogers served in the military from 2000 to 2011, serving two tours in Iraq. At the time of the car accident, he was stationed in San Antonio.
"My Army training prepared me to do what I did: react first," he said.
Born and raised in Texas and the small southern Illinois town called Hord, Rogers moved to Urbana about a year ago. His unit nominated him for the award, called the Soldier's Medal. It is given to an individual serving in the Armed Forces for heroism performed not in direct combat.
"This isn't just any medal. This is the highest honor that anyone can get in a noncombat situation," said Congressman Rodney Davis, who presented the medal to Rogers in a ceremony in the Atkins Building at the University of Illinois Research Park on Thursday.
"When faced with a decision that many of us parents think, what would we do in those situations ... (Rogers) made the decision to sacrifice his own health, his own body to save his family. To be able to be here to present this medal just because I have a new job is just truly humbling for me," Davis said.
In his 35 years in the military, Maj. Gen. Bill Geraty, commanding general for the 80th training command in Virginia, said Thursday's event was the second time he has witnessed the medal being awarded.
"It's not a common event," he said. "We are in the presence of a hero."
The accident occurred on a rainy day in July 2008, on Interstate 40 outside of Little Rock, Ark.
A vehicle had stopped on the highway in front of the Rogers' family, and a semitrailer hit their car from behind. A total of six semis and a van were involved in the crash. It was 43 minutes before the ambulances would take the family to the nearest hospital. During that waiting period on the side of the interstate, Rogers said goodbye to his family.
"I didn't think I'd make it," he said.
About 70 percent of his body was covered in burns. Between his time in the hospital's burn unit and rehabilitation unit, he would spend about eight months in recovery.
Today, he still experiences joint pain and some tingling in his legs.
His son had about 5 percent of his body burned; his wife and daughter were about 20 percent burned.
About 2years ago, Rogers bought the Champaign company Technology Concepts Group, a small firm which offers computerized maintenance management solutions. He moved here about a year ago. His parents, David and Teresa Rogers; his children, daughter Tera and son David; and other family and friends were there for the ceremony Thursday.
After congratulating Rogers, Maj. Gen. Karen Ledoux said she also wanted to thank his family and friends whose influence throughout the years gave Rogers the strength and ability to react the way he did on that day in July.
"We recognize he is a product of his family and community," she said.