'I looked at her in the burning car and thought 'I can't leave her' - that wasn't an option'

Alice in Knaresborough, taken by younger sister Amy
-Credit: (Image: Birchall family)


The hero who pulled Alice Birchall from a burning car before she died following a horror crash has reminded motorists driving dangerously 'you are driving a weapon'.

22-year-old graduate Alice had just landed her dream job and was on her way home from work on June 18, 2022, when she fell into the path of drink driver Jonathon Hopkinson. Hopkinson, 35, had his young daughter in the car as he careered around residential roads in Leeds at 100mph before the Audi he was driving collided with Alice's Nissan Juke.

Alice's car was propelled back and rotated. As Hopkinson was jailed for eight years last week and disqualified from driving, Leeds Crown Court watched footage of his "breath taking" driving and heard how he was convicted of speeding just months later in October 2022.

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Now the man who saved the life of Hopkinson, his daughter and tried to save the life of Alice, has warned others of the consequences of dangerous driving.

James Russell, 47, had been out for a meal with his wife and children when they came across the crash scene on Manston Lane, Leeds. He said: "I thought originally it was joyriders. I pulled up and thought, 'This isn't right.' It was eerily quiet. I got out...I could hear something in the car behind. If you have a high-speed impact crash, the car will immediately dial the emergency services and I could hear a voice going 'Hello, hello, are you ok, have you had an accident?'

"The car behind - Jonathon's car - was on fire. I didn't realise there was anybody in there because all of the airbags were down. I went up to the car and could see someone in it."

Mr Russell said he pulled Hopkinson from the car first but was unaware that his young daughter was also inside. He added: "He was saying, 'I'm going to die.'" It was then Mr Russell saw the young girl and pulled her from the car.

Alice Birchall, 22, was just about to start her dream job after graduating from her degree
Alice Birchall, 22, was just about to start her dream job after graduating from her degree -Credit:Birchall family

He said: "It was instinct to help. You couldn't not....I'm into my cars and you could just see - it was a large amount of devastation in the road. I just knew he had been driving fast. Both cars were facing in the wrong direction and were on the wrong side of the road. I just looked and thought, 'Something catastrophic happened.' It was the scene you see at a crash on the motorway, not a 30mph zone."

It was as Mr Russell took the little girl to the side of the road that he saw the Audi was completely on fire, and the flames had crossed to the other vehicle and he saw Alice. Mr Russell was not able to open the door to get to her initially. He said: "I looked at her and thought, 'I can't leave her in the car.' That wasn't an option."

He managed to get the door open and free Alice before the emergency services arrived at the scene.

Mr Russell said he was not aware that Hopkinson had been drinking until his sentencing last week. The court heard he had 140ml of alcohol in 100ml of blood - almost twice the legal drink drive limit. The court heard Hopkinson had previously admitted causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving.

Hopkinson has been put behind bars for eight years
Hopkinson has been put behind bars for eight years -Credit:West Yorkshire Police

Ten days after Alice's death, the sentencing guidelines were changed for the charge of causing death by dangerous driving. New maximum sentences were introduced for offences by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. The act came into effect in July 2023, and increased the sentence for causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving when under the influence of alcohol or drugs from 14 years to life.

The guidelines changed for offences committed on or after June 28, 2022 - ten days after the collision caused by Hopkinson, meaning he was to be sentenced in line with previous guidelines.

Mr Russell believes Hopkinson's sentence was "too lenient." He added: "I'm waiting for more recent cases to see what has changed...The problem is not only do they think they can handle a car, they can't. They're driving a weapon. They're thinking in their heads, 'The consequences of doing what I'm doing, if something happens I'm only getting four or five years in the clink.'

"What comes now is, are these new sentencing guidelines actually going to make a difference? I want to see some cases come through where they make an example of people."

Mr Russell also spoke about Hopkinson's most recent conviction for speeding, which happened months after Alice's death. He said: "After killing someone I wouldn't be able to drive or get behind the wheel. The drink driving - it was absolutely obscene. What you're seeing come out of court at the moment is not a true reflection [of what will happen].

Floral tributes left on Manston Road
Floral tributes left on Manston Road -Credit:Amy Birchall

"People need to realise they are going to be punished for what they have done. People think they are going to get a low amount of time. People don't think they will kill someone. It's a high possibility - the amount of people on the road now, that [driving dangerously] will kill someone.

"It's affected me, my kids and my wife. It's affected people that I've had to offload on and the people around Alice and Amy."

Mr Russell says he has also seen videos showing people speeding on social media and says it is "abhorrent" that it is not being policed. He added: "People just need to be thinking of the consequences of their actions - it's not going to be a quick or good stay at HMP is it? Not any more and I hope not.

"I don't think anyone can justify the short sentence he got."

Mr Russell says he has never had a thank you from Hopkinson or his family for saving his or his daughter's life. In his sentencing remarks, His Honour Judge Tom Bayliss told him he would not be alive had it not been for him. Mr Russell said: "He was sat in that car when it happened and all he could think about was himself.

"We all know that sentence wasn't long enough, even that judge knew but he was bound by the Crown." As he warned other dangerous drivers he said: "There are going to be serious consequences for causing death by dangerous driving."

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