But 63-year-old John Bellshaw fell off under the lorry , and heard 48-year-old Steven Mitchell’s pleas for help: “I am burning – get me out.”
A fatal accident inquiry into Inverness man Mr Mitchell’s death heard it was the last words he spoke as “the cab went from a fire to an inferno”, Mr Bellshaw told Sheriff Gordon Fleetwood at Inverness Sheriff Court.
Mr Mitchell’s family were in court to hear the graphic details of Mr Bellshaw’s heroic attempt to save him on 19 December 2015.
Mr Mitchell’s tanker had overturned on to its driver’s side on the Ullapool to Inverness road about lunchtime, a few miles from the Wester Ross fishing village.
Mr Bellshaw said a woman was first on the scene and told him the driver was still inside.
He said: “I went to the passenger door and couldn’t see inside. The cab was full of smoke. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher or a fire blanket so I went to the front of the lorry to see if I could get in that way.
“I knew I couldn’t get in through the windscreen but could see the engine compartment was on fire. I climbed on top of the tanker in the hope of getting in the passenger door. But I couldn’t. Then the lady who was on the phone said the police had told he to tell me to get off.”
Mr Bellshaw said that was when he fell under the tanker on to bushes.
“When I sat up, I saw the driver through the window.
“He spoke to me – a few words – he said ‘I am burning, get me out’.
“I said: ‘I am trying’. I couldn’t see what was trapping him. His back was against the window. He couldn’t get out and I couldn’t get in.
“The fire was now substantially totally different inside from what I initially saw from outside.
“I then climbed out over the top of the tanker, and found a fire extinguisher in a compartment of the lorry. But it wouldn’t work when I pressed the handle.
“But I don’t think it would have made any difference by then. The fire was beyond an extinguisher. It went from a fire to an inferno.”
Mr Bellshaw said it was then that he realised he himself was in danger.
“It must have been the adrenaline kicking in. Within seconds of me trying to operate the extinguisher, the fire started to escalate quickly. I said to myself I couldn’t be there any longer. It was getting to the stage there could have been an explosion because there was a substantial escape of fuel.”
The inquiry was told that the retained fire brigade unit from Ullapool arrived.
Firefighter of 26 years Malcolm MacLeod said: “We were there within eight or nine minutes of the call. We didn’t expect a fire but were prepared.
“We weren’t sure what the tanker was carrying, whether it was empty or full and the hill above it had caught fire as well.“It took us 30 to 35 minutes to extinguish the blaze.”
He explained that he and his crew could not get near the vehicle to save Mr Mitchell.
“It was impossible,” he said. “We had to stay 50ft away from it in case of an explosion.”
The inquiry continues.