Cpl. Christopher Sturgeon of the Topeka (Kan.) Police Department
On the evening of Nov. 17, 2009, members of the Topeka (Kan.) Police Department heard a call go out over the radio: a structure fire with at least one person trapped inside. Arriving before firefighters, Cpl. Christopher Sturgeon and Officer Trent Ginn used common sense and instinct to fight through choking smoke and rescue a woman from her flame-engulfed house. For this they have been named the July 2010 National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund officers of the month.
Neither Cpl. Sturgeon nor Officer Ginn had ever beaten the fire department to the punch on a structure fire call before, and it was the first time either would attempt a fire rescue. Sturgeon's patrol unit was only a couple blocks away from the blaze, so he was the first on scene.
When Sturgeon drove up, he noticed the fire appeared focused in the front of the house where a man was trying to break open a window to help. But the window was too high to access and Sturgeon worried he was running out of time.
When he heard a woman screaming inside, the corporal decided to try the back door. He moved to the rear of the residence and broke through the locks on the door and screen as he followed the screams, which appeared to be coming from the front of the house. "And then I disappeared into the smoke," he says.
Remembering his grade-school training for surviving a fire, Sturgeon stayed low to the ground where the air was cleaner, feeling his way through the smoke as he searched for the woman. He could no longer hear her screaming. He had to come back outside for air several times and resume where he'd left off when he went back inside.
"Each time as I got in there successively even further, I started panicking even more because about eight to 10 inches at the bottom of the floor you have a really dense, gray smoke," says Sturgeon. "And then just above it it's jet black; you can't see anything."
On his third trip back in, he caught a break.
"I had gotten through to the third room and just happened to see a foot attached to an ankle. I grabbed the ankle and the foot and I just started pulling," he says.
Sturgeon dragged the woman as far as he could toward the back door and came outside. That was when he saw that Officer Ginn had arrived to assist. He was glad for help from someone with a fresh set of lungs.
Officer Trent Ginn of the Topeka (Kan.) Police Department
"He gave me a quick layout of the house, and said that there was pretty much zero visibility because of the smoke," says Ginn of his impromptu debriefing. "After he provided me that quick description and reminded me to stay low, I went in, and Cpl. Sturgeon followed behind me."
Halfway between a squat and a crawl, the men felt their way through a hallway back to where Sturgeon had left the woman on his last entry into the building. They located her and pulled her to safety, with Ginn hoisting the woman over his shoulder for the final exit from the house.
"The main thing was we were able to get her out," says Ginn. "We got the woman a safe distance away from the house and made sure she was responsive. And there was not a second person inside, which was initially a concern for us."
Both officers were treated for smoke inhalation and released from the hospital the same day. The woman they saved also made a full recovery.
"I definitely took away some lessons from Cpl Sturgeon," says Ginn. "He did a great job and realized the fire was in the front of the house, so he entered into the rear of the house and stayed low. I picked up some lessons there."
Sturgeon also learned a lesson from this experience. He now carries towels and bottled water in his go bag to create a makeshift mask of wet towels in case he ever has to enter a burning building again. He recommends other officers carry these supplies. But more importantly, he wants other officers to accept help when it's needed.
"I could've rescued her myself with another trip in, but it was nice to have another person with me on the last trip who was fresh and hadn't breathed in as much smoke," says Sturgeon of Ginn's help. "If someone is available and willing to enter and assist, please request it. It's ignorant if you don't."
Both Cpl. Sturgeon and Officer Ginn received the Topeka Police Department Medal of Valor and the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police Silver Award for their bravery. While they're appreciative and humbled by the recognition, both say they were just doing their job.
For more information about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the POLICE-sponsored Officer of the Month program, visit www.nleomf.org.