Photo courtesy of Zachary Huckstep.
Alaska State Trooper Zachary Huckstep recognized the signs of a house fire and rescued the homeowner and her baby daughter from the flames and thick smoke on Nov. 12, 2009. For his actions he has been selected as the March 2012 Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Trooper Huckstep was off duty when he got the call to assist on a 911 hang-up check. The residence was on the small Alaskan island of Ketchikan, where Huckstep lived, so he was able to respond as Trooper Jack LeBlanc's backup within a few minutes.
It was after 10 p.m. and LeBlanc couldn't see inside. Huckstep who had been a volunteer firefighter recognized the signs of a fire inside the house. "Particles in the carpet and paint give off black toxic smoke and cover the windows. It will look like someone has turned the lights out," he says.
He walked around to the back of the house for a different view from the slope behind, and he saw flames in the window and smoke billowing through the roof shingles.
LeBlanc kicked down the front door and both troopers got out of the way to allow for backdraft before looking inside to assess the situation. "We could only see about 1.5 feet off the ground. But we were able to see underneath the smoke and view a woman's feet," says Huckstep. "Where she lay, about eight inches of her leg—foot and ankle—were sticking out from around the hallway. Her body was beyond our visibility."
Huckstep and LeBlanc "low crawled" under the smoke and brought the woman out of the house to safety. LeBlanc began CPR while Huckstep retrieved a resuscitator from his vehicle to assist. Once they were sure she had a pulse, Huckstep instructed LeBlanc to run to the nearest house, which was not very close, and ask if other residents might be inside.
Without waiting to find out the answer, Huckstep wrapped his heavy coat over himself and his face and took a deep breath before beginning a room-by-room search of the house for victims. He had to come outside for air after each room.
After searching most of the house, he came to a back room with the door shut. "I think the door saved the baby," says Huckstep. "The smoke was so hot in the house, and the crib was really tall. If the door had been open, the smoke would've engulfed the baby. I put the little girl—under a year old—in my shirt, and put my coat around me and zipped it up, and low crawled outside."
He handed the infant to a recently arrived neighbor who said the rescued woman’s husband might be inside. Huckstep was getting tired and the flames and smoke were intensifying, but no firefighters had arrived. So he went back in to check the one remaining room. As he reached it, he got winded and thought it would be OK to take a small breath. "It was like some 400-pound guy had sucker punched me. I couldn’t move or do anything," he says.
Running out of options, the trooper remembered from his fire training that as a last resort you can often breathe through clothes or a mattress. He picked up a pile of clothes and brought them up to his face. "I was able to get three or four good breaths because there was some good, clean oxygen in there," says Huckstep. "With that I was able to low crawl out of the house."
When he emerged he got a second wind. He hadn't found anyone else in the home. With the woman still unconscious but breathing and the baby unharmed, he tried to save their house, emptying heavy rain cisterns he found full of water. Huckstep had just finished dousing the flames when the fire truck arrived. He passed out. He was treated for minor smoke inhalation in the hospital and released.
The woman, a former police officer, was successfully treated for severe smoke inhalation, and the baby was given a clean bill of health. The husband had been out of town and was never in danger. Burning trash inside the house, a common occurrence in that rural area, had caused the accidental fire when debris escaped and ignited nearby furniture.
Huckstep was recently reassigned to the Alaska Bureau of Investigations and now works out of Anchorage, but he still thinks of the event and is glad he was able to help. "For going on six years I was out on patrol, and I never had anything happen like this before or since," he says. "I was able to find the baby and help Jack carry the woman out—and save not just somebody, but a fellow cop. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I helped in their lives." He and Trooper LeBlanc met with the family afterwards and played with the little girl. "I felt like that was all the reward I needed," he says.