Chris Cox was driving on Highway 116 near Stony Point Road in Cotati on Tuesday when he saw smoke rising from a burning car that had apparently crashed through a fence on the westbound roadside.

He stopped his truck, ran across the street and jumped the fence.

"The whole inside of the car was so smoked out, I couldn't see if there was anyone inside it," he said Wednesday, recalling the incident that took place Tuesday afternoon.

He opened the car door. The engine was revving high. Smoke poured out. Flames, he said, were licking beneath the vehicle.

"I looked inside and there was a lady, she was unconscious and there was a little dog on her lap," said Cox, whose son, Danny Cox, died in a Highway 101 car crash three months ago after being paralyzed a year earlier in a diving accident at Lake Tahoe.

Cox threw the dog out of the car and tried to free the woman, who was alone in the car. He couldn't reach the seatbelt release.

"Luckily, I carry a Leatherman," he said, referring to a multipurpose tool that includes a knife.

He cut the belt. A man came to help and they dragged the woman out.

"They probably saved her life, I believe they did," said Cotati Police Lt. Bill French, who confirmed Cox's account.

A bystander said she was a nurse and began attending to the woman, Cox said. Someone else brought over a fire extinguisher. Police officers yelled at everybody to get away from the car.

"So I bailed after that," said Cox, of Petaluma.

"What was really cool is that when I got back in my truck, the guy who helped me came over and knocked on my window," Cox said. "He said, 'Good job, you saved that woman's life.' That was nice."

French said that the woman, Ricki Ann Thiele, 43, of Rohnert Park, had been reported driving erratically minutes before the crash, which happened shortly after noon.

Thiele was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital with unknown injuries and was arrested there on suspicion of driving under the influence. She was released Wednesday, French said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or