Off-duty Manatee deputy saves couple from burning car

The officer was riding on his bike and found the burning car, and he launched into action.

BRADENTON, Fla. --  A Manatee County couple is alive today thanks to the quick thinking of an off duty sheriff's deputy.  Neil and Claudia Cook call Deputy Willie Finklea their angel.

The burnt grass and oil along Moccasin Wallow Road in Manatee County is what’s left of a terrifying Sunday afternoon for the Cooks.

“This is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. I knew the Lord would take care of us,” says Claudia, 66, as she cries and her voice shakes.

Claudia says the Lord did send someone his name is Willie Finklea, an off-duty Manatee County sheriff’s deputy and assistant minister at his church.

Finklea says, “I believe my wife and I were agents of God that put us to be in that location at that time not our usual route but rarely go that way.”

The Cooks were headed to Orlando to visit their grandchildren and around 2 o’clock when they got off I-75 at Wallow Moccasin Road, looking for a scenic route.

The Cooks say a warning light turned on about the electrical charging system and soon more lights turned on. They turned around and headed back for the interstate and then a bad situation quickly grew worse.

Neil says, “As soon as I pulled over Claudia says there’s smoke coming out under the hood I said, 'Get out.' She says, 'I can’t.'  I checked the buttons and handles we were locked in the car. Claudia called 911. I used my pocket knife to try and break open the window.” 

At the same time, the motorcycle deputy and his wife drove by on his bike, headed home to Bradenton from church.

“There was panic, Mr. Cook banging in on the window with his cane. His wife was hysterical,” says Finlea.

All Finklea had with him was his off-duty gun. He says, “I had to use my off duty weapon to put a hole in the back glass kick in the window in and unlock the door from the inside.”

Claudia was pulled out the back seat and Neil climbed out on his own  neither were hurt.

Neil says, “Five more minutes we would have died smoke inhalation. He put himself in danger thought the car would blow up at any second.”

“He did not hesitate to help us,” says Claudia.  “He was a kind human being. I know it’s his job. I feel it’s his nature to come and help. He saw people needed him there he was. We’re so grateful.”

But Deputy Finklea says he’s the grateful one.

While he gave the Cooks life, Finklea is asked what did they give him ? Finklea says, “Being used by God to help them in their most desperate times that’s a gift for me.”

The Cooks say when they return to Manatee County from Orlando they will take Deputy Finklea and his wife out to dinner.

The couple says while the deputy saved their lives there were several other Good Samaritans who stopped to help too.

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