Leaning on crutches and balancing on his right leg, Chris Cvitanov fought back tears Thursday morning as he faced the men who pulled his mangled body from the searing wreckage of a car nearly eight years ago.
"I'm sorry it's taken me so long to come here," he told five uniformed firefighters and paramedics who gathered around him inside Roseville Fire Department No. 1 on Oak Street. "I just wanted to thank you for saving my life."
Cvitanov, 38, of Citrus Heights, was not always grateful to have survived a crash that left him with burns over 45 percent of his body.
He lost his left leg. His lower body was so badly burned that "I didn't feel like a man anymore," he said. He spent nearly three months in the hospital, where his body shriveled from 165 pounds to 102. After his release, he ditched sobriety and started using cocaine again. He considered ending it all.
Then he had an epiphany, triggered in part by meeting and marrying "the love of my life," his wife, Aimee.
"She showed me what unconditional love means," he said. "She taught me that I am no less of a man because of my injuries. She taught me to love myself."
Now, he said, he believes that his accident happened for a reason, "to make me a better man, a better person," and a better father to his two children by a previous marriage. To that end, he said, he wanted to meet the men who rescued him.
The firefighters appeared visibly moved by Cvitanov's visit.
They recalled, in vivid detail, the rollover crash that injured him. They assumed that Cvitanov was dead until he phoned recently to request a meeting.
"I don't think anyone on the scene that day believed he would make it," said fire Capt. Rick Edgar.
On the afternoon of June 24, 2005, Cvitanov was riding in a Chevy Cavalier that a friend was driving on the pair's way home from work. Another driver cut off the car, and it began to roll. As it did, Cvitanov's body flew out of the vehicle, which landed on top of him in a ditch off of Highway 65 near Blue Oaks Boulevard.
"We couldn't even see him at first because the grass was so high," said deputy Chief Jeff Carman. "Then we realized he was trapped under the car," his body "wrapped around the exhaust system" and his legs "tangled in the catalytic converter," said Carman.
The hot metal was searing into Cvitanov's skin and muscle as the paramedics worked to free him from the vehicle. He was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center; his friend suffered relatively minor injuries.
That was the last that Carman and the other firefighters heard about the injured men until Cvitanov called to ask whether he could meet with them.
"I was shocked to hear that he was alive," said Edgar.
Firefighters rarely learn the fate of the people that they rescue, the fire captain said. "We're there for the 15 most critical minutes of their lives, and then we never see them again."
So Cvitanov's visit was special.
With his wife filming every moment, Cvitanov told his rescuers Thursday that he is clean and sober, that he loves life again, and that he wants to share his story with other burn survivors and amputees in an effort to inspire and uplift them.
He is a "very active" volunteer for the Firefighters Burn Institute, which serves burn survivors and their families, said spokesman Jim Doucette. Besides talking about what happened to him, he helps out at fundraisers and even stuffs envelopes.
Looking back on the accident that nearly claimed his life, Cvitanov said he "would go through all of it again" to get to where he is today.
"Everything has taken on a new meaning," he said.
"I have been given such a gift, and I want to help other people see that. No matter how far down you get, you can find your way up again.
"This is my purpose now, a thousand percent," said Cvitanov. "There's no paycheck, but I get an emotional payoff that no one could ever put a price on."
Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @cynthia_hubert.