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Cool under fire: How a pregnant mom helped her family escape the Highway 400 fireball

'I think my parental instincts kicked in'
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2017-11-01 Highway 400 Fireball 1
The scene of a collision on Highway 400 on October 31, 2017. Photo provided by Paul Novosad

It's amazing how a series of random, everyday events can put you in the line of fire.

In Sara Hlywka's case, it was a massive fireball on Highway 400.

The 22-year-old mother of two young children and a third on the way was driving home to Barrie from Oshawa on Halloween night after taking her daughters trick or treating with family. 

Hlywka's fiance was dozing in the passenger seat after switching with her minutes earlier at the En Route because he was too tired to keep driving. 

"About 500 metres in front of me I saw a car cut off a big transport truck and then all of a sudden the sky went yellow and it blew up. I braked really hard and veered off to the right of the highway and I started to reverse because if I didn't I would've been caught up in the fire," said Hlywka.

"It was very scary. I didn't know what to do. I was the first to call 911 but they didn't know where I was. I was trying to explain what happened and I was freaking out."

Her daughters, just 9 months and four-years-old, were thankfully asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the danger.

There were 14 vehicles involved in the pile-up, including two fuel tankers, around 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 31 on the 400 between Highway 88 and 89. 

Three people were killed, including one of the truckers who was a father of nine from North Bay and an Oshawa man.  The third victim has not yet been officially identified. 

"I was like whoa whoa whoa and I slammed on the brakes and my fiance woke up and he was like whoa. It was like what you see in the movies. It was really loud and I felt the heat," said Hlywka.

She says the only person in front of her was the car that got caught in the crash and no one was behind her for about a kilometre and a half.

So when she saw the big fireball, the quick-thinking mom put the car in reverse to escape. 

People that eventually started passing her got caught in the fire. 

"One would catch fire then another and another. It would keep going like dominos. As soon as people saw the fire coming for their cars they started running southbound on the northbound lane, kind of where I was parked," she recalled. 

"When I reversed, the fire kept spreading to the cars that were in front of me and all of sudden a police officer came and told me to follow him. We were going southbound in the northbound lanes. I think we got off in Bradford."

Hlywka reacted without hesitation, knowing her babies were in the back seat. 

"I think my parental instincts kicked in," she said.

Now she reflects on the random events that put her behind the wheel of the car at that moment and not a moment sooner.

Mere seconds that made such a huge difference.

"If we were any closer," she said, her voice trailing off.

"Something told me to slow down a bit. I was doing the speed limit, but I thought, I'm kind of tired, I'm going to slow down. If I didn't say that in my head and kept going as fast as I did I would've been caught up in the whole commotion," she said.

"I don't know what came over me or who was looking after me. I say that someone was looking after me that night."

In the days following her harrowing brush with catastrophe, the reality is sinking in.

"It has hit me hard. Today I was on the highway and I had a big anxiety attack because there was a fuel tanker in front of me and now its like, I'm just going to take my time. It just freaked me out."

Cool under pressure and armed with her parental instincts, the Barrie mom is now urging motorists to slow down and be more cautious, especially around transport trucks. 

"People that cut off transport trucks? I just shake my head at them.  People should be more cautious of how they handle road situations and how they handle other drivers. Just be more cautious. It opened my eyes more to look out too."

The OPP says the collision is still under investigation and no charges have been laid.