UF students rescue friend from burning SUV

Forrest Cunningham, who was seriously injured in an accident Sunday November 17, 2013 in Suwannee County with friend Gillian Fazio. Courtesy Photo

Published: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 7:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 7:39 p.m.

It's a miracle that Forrest Cunningham is even alive.

Were it not for the quick thinking of two fraternity brothers Sunday night, the 19-year-old former University of Florida student from Lakeland may be dead right now.

Tyler Suddeth and Cory Dorman, both seniors at UF and members of Delta Tau Delta, pulled Forrest out of his burning Toyota SUV Sunday night after it drifted off I-10 and crashed into a tree in Suwannee County.

“It's a miracle he's here at all,” Forrest's mother, Jessie Pilloud Cunningham, said Tuesday afternoon while awaiting the outcome of Forrest's second surgery since the accident. “If those boys weren't there to pull him out…” she said, her voice trailing off.

“Who knew they would have gone into a burning car to pull out a 170-pound boy?” his father, Tom Cunningham, asked, completing his wife's thoughts.

Father and mother sat in the second floor lobby at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, surrounded by Forrest's aunts, his younger brother Caden, his grandmother, and his high school girlfriend Gillian Fazio.

They said they have been amazed by the outpouring of support they've received from family and friends back in Lakeland, where Forrest went to high school, and the friends he's made here in Gainesville during his freshman year at UF.

“We're so grateful for all the support,” Tom Cunningham said.

Forrest and his friends were driving back from the Bear Creek Music and Art Festival at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park north of Live Oak around 9 p.m. Sunday night. Forrest was driving in his 2011 Toyota 4 Runner behind Suddeth and Dorman, heading east when he passed them in the left lane, Dorman said.

“We noticed he was kind of swerving, like he was texting or getting something to eat, or distracted. He drifted into the right lane, onto the shoulder and off the road completely,” Dorman said. “He collided into the tree head on.”

Tyler, who was driving, pulled over and they sprinted to Forrest's truck, the hood and front seat already engulfed in flames, Dorman said.

“Forrest was unconscious with his face in the air bag,” Dorman said.

The front driver window was rolled down, but the doors were smashed shut.

“We couldn't get him out, the doors wouldn't open, flames had engulfed half his body, his arms and legs, and we couldn't get him out,” Suddeth said.

Forrest's leg was pinned between the steering wheel and seat. Suddeth had to reach into the flames to move Forrest's leg, untangle the seat belt and pull Forrest out through the window.

Forrest, a 170-pound former Lakeland High School running back and wrestler, was not an easy lift, Suddeth said.

The flames got more intense, so the two frat brothers dragged Forrest away from the SUV to safety and called 911.

About 40 minutes after the accident, Suwannee County Fire Rescue and Suwannee County Sheriff's Office responded to the scene. The car was fully engulfed in flames when Fire Rescue Capt. Eddie Hand and his firefighters arrived.

“His friends had pulled him out from the car before we got there, and as soon as we arrived, they left, possibly to be with their friend at Shands,” Hand said.

Suwannee County Fire Rescue airlifted Cunningham to UF Health Shands by helicopter.

The Florida HIghway Patrol is continuing to investigate the accident. No alcohol was involved and Forrest was wearing his seatbelt, the FHP reported.

Once the first responders got there and stabilized Forrest on a stretcher with a neck brace, Suddeth and Dorman figured the best thing for them to do was contact Forrest's parents and get to Shands in time to meet them there when they arrived from Lakeland, Suddeth said.

Suddeth's hands, covered with scratches and first-degree burns, were treated at Shands and bandaged.

“They're not terribly bad,” he said.

Even though Forrest withdrew from UF to live with his family and go to Polk State College, Suddeth said they consider themselves brothers.

“Our number one concern is being there for him and the family, bring them meals when they need them, and make their lives as comfortable as possible,” Suddeth said. “One of our values is that brotherhood sustains us. This is one way of showing that.”

“He's close to all of us,” said Gardner Reid, a junior who, along with several other brothers, went to Shands with Suddeth and Dorman Monday to see how Forrest was doing.

Forrest has undergone surgery twice since Sunday to repair internal bleeding and he's been kept in a medically induced coma except to rouse him enough to check his vital signs, said his mother, Jessie. He's got a critical care team and a burn unit team, she said, and the trauma team that first treated him upon arrival checks in on him regularly, she said.

His doctors say he's burned over 32-40 percent of his body and can expect to stay in hospital for at least a month, his parents said. The burns are on his right side.

His aunt, Donna Sutherland, said doctors told her that Forrest can expect to spend one day recovering for every percent of his body that is burned. “That means that there is recovery, and an end to this,” she said.

Family members plan to stay in Gainesville by Forrest's side while he recovers.

“If we have to sell the house, that's what we'll do,” Jessie said. “We will do whatever it takes … No one can pull me away from Forrest.”

UF Health officials would only say that Forrest is in critical condition.

“He's amazingly strong,” Tom Cunningham said. “He'll get through this. That we have faith in. He's a strong boy.”

Jessie said she has been buoyed by messages her friends have posted on Facebook. “I'm praying for all of you -- I'm so sorry this has happened -- he's a tough kid, and a fighter!! PLEASE let me know if I can do anything for you guys!! I mean ANYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!! C,” wrote Casey Chandler Sigmon Jr.

Forrest's friends likewise pleaded for prayers all over social media, his friend Brandee Smith said.

Smith, 20, of Lakeland, has known Forrest since the third grade. They went to Lakeland High together, where Forrest was homecoming king, senior class president and a varsity football player.

For Smith and other friends, Forrest embodies the All-American boy.

“He was part of everything, part of every activity, and always smiling,” she said. “He's really caring and high-spirited.”

Alex Peavey, who has known Forrest for nine years and has spent a lot of time skateboarding with him, said he felt compelled to make the trip to Gainesville to see his friend.

“I just felt like I really needed to be there,” Peavey said.

Gillian Fazio, a UF sophomore who dated Forrest for three years, said she sees his fighting spirit and sense of humor shining through.

“He was making jokes,” she said. He gave her a thumbs up when he came out of his first round of surgery, she said.

Forrest had come to UF to study pre-med originally, his mother said, but she made him return to Lakeland and enroll in Polk State College so he'd be closer. “I'm an overly protective mother,” she said.

She and her husband also had worried about him driving such long distances back and forth between Gainesville and Lakeland. She even had a bad feeling the night of the accident, she said. She said Forrest has no history of sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders.

Jessie Cunningham said she hopes that what happened to Forrest can be used to draw attention to the dangers of driving while fatigued.

“If it can help anyone else, it's worth it all,” she said. “We all make the same mistake of thinking we can drive through while being tired.”

Staff writer Monivette Cordeiro contributed to this report.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top