PEABODY — Firefighters climbed atop a burning car yesterday morning and pulled a young man from the wreckage in a rescue that played out like a Hollywood movie.

"If they had been there a couple of minutes later," said neighbor Charles Annino, a witness, "the young man would have burned to death."

The accident happened just after 2 a.m.

"There was a loud crash followed by a horn blaring," said Annino, who heard the impact and went out to see "flames shooting up the side of the house."

The driver, whose name and condition are being withheld, was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital by Atlantic Ambulance.

Annino saw that the vehicle had smashed into a tree stump, then sailed onto a stone wall, likely going airborne, before landing another 30 to 40 feet beyond against the house at 48 Herrick Road, setting it ablaze along with the vehicle.

"The engine was out of the car," Annino said. Huge stones had been knocked from the wall and propelled all the way against the house. "It looked like a battlefield."

Arriving on the scene, fire Capt. Dale Kimball and his team, Paul Rheaume, Paul LaPlante and Stephen Pellegrini, began putting foam on the fire. Meanwhile, two of them rushed inside the house to warn any residents but found it was empty.

"We weren't certain there was anybody in the car," Kimball said. "It was lying on its side." A small "pencil ladder" was now used to climb atop the car, which was lodged against the house and burning at the front and particularly at the back.

"It was hot," Kimball said.

To complicate matters, the vehicle filled with smoke and darkness.

"We couldn't see," Kimball said. "It was pitch-black."

Working quickly, the team broke the passenger-side window and reached down.

"We used feel and touch," Kimball said. "We felt a body. We grabbed him. And he made a noise." Together, they lifted the young man out of the vehicle through the passenger window.

"We got very lucky," Kimball said.

"I've got to give those guys a lot of credit," said Annino, who watched the rescue. "They really put their lives on the line. ... Those guys performed above and beyond the call of duty."

Kimball stressed that it was a team effort and something any member of the Peabody Fire Department would have done. Eventually, he said, four firetrucks responded to the emergency, quickly dousing any blaze.

"The kid's lucky to be alive," Kimball said, describing him as an 18-year-old whose misfortune seemed heightened in the Christmas season. Declining to speculate on the victim's injuries, Kimball acknowledged that he was bleeding when extricated.

He added that this was the most "horrific" accident he's seen in 13 years on the job.

Peabody firefighters are well-trained, Kimball said, but a situation like this, a car burning, on its side, against a house, in the night, is impossible to fully prepare for.

"You go with your instincts," he said.

"You would never suspect that anyone would come out of that," Annino said of the wreck. He speculates that the driver had been coming down Perley Avenue and noted that speeders in this neighborhood are a chronic worry, with several accidents already on the books.

"They have really got to slow down on this street," he said.

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