Officer Randall Courson of the Pulaski Township (Pa.) Police Department noticed a late-night crash in January and kept up the spirits of a teen trapped in his overturned and water-filled truck so he could find the strength to keep his head above water until more help arrived. For his efforts, Courson has been named the April 2013 Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Courson had ended his shift around 9:30 pm on Jan. 4. As he placed his patrol car in the garage, he saw the headlights and heard the motor of a vehicle traveling toward him from some distance away down the hilly road that runs past the station. When he exited the garage to get into his personal car, there was no sign of the vehicle, which was odd.
He headed down the road toward home. As he began crossing a short bridge over Deer Creek, Courson glanced over the railing and saw a pickup truck upended in the deepest part of the water. He realized it must be the vehicle that had vanished from the road just a minute or two before, and he knew someone must be trapped inside.
"I was fully in gear and still had my radio and everything I needed to actually be a police officer on duty so I called it in," says Courson. He requested fire department assistance, then quickly got out of his SUV and walked down to the vehicle below to do what he could to help.
"I could hear one of the subjects yelling to his friend for him to keep his head above water," remembers Courson. "I yelled to him, the driver, and asked him if he was above the water. He said yes. I asked him if he could keep his head above the water and he said yes, but he didn't know about his friend. He said he called to his friend and his friend wasn't talking to him anymore."
Courson waded through the waist-deep frigid water to open the passenger door. "I got the door open maybe three inches and that was as much as I could get it open," Courson remembers. "I saw a person inside and he was upside down, but I couldn't see anything other than his hand and his leg [because his upper half was under water]."
He couldn't get either person out, so Courson focused on what he could do. While periodically trying to open the passenger door, he kept talking to the driver, a 17-year-old who had to make a constant effort to twist his body and keep his head in an air pocket above the water line.
There was a very real danger of the driver going into shock or losing consciousness with the onset of hypothermia from sitting in the cold water. There was also the possibility that the driver might lose hope, especially with his 15-year-old friend motionless under the water next to him in the passenger seat.
Two other police officers arrived six to eight minutes after Courson. The three of them pulled on the passenger door but still couldn't get it open enough to reach the passenger and remove him.
Soon after, the fire department arrived. "With four of us we were able to pull the door open far enough that we could actually get to the passenger," says Courson. "I cut the seat belt and we pulled him from the water and got him onto the ground. They had a backboard there and they started CPR on him."
The passenger was transported to a shock trauma center in Ohio, across the nearby state border. Unfortunately, he would not survive.
It took another 10 to 15 minutes to get the driver out of the water. Responders had cut his seat belt but both it and some speaker wires were still pinning him inside the truck. One of the fire department personnel had to crawl inside the vehicle and cut the seat belt again to free the driver. He was treated for hypothermia and minor injuries.
"If there's anything that I did, they always say police are never at the right place at the right time, but I was," says Courson. "And being older and having been on the job, I was just more aware that something wasn't right."
The driver said he swerved on the bridge to avoid a deer and his truck went over the railing, falling upside down into the creek below. It was only because Courson was looking for the vehicle and was in an SUV with a higher vantage point that the crash was discovered that night. And his continued vigilance in attending to the driver kept the result from ending in more tragedy.
"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done. I was a police officer in Maryland for 21 years in Howard County, and I was involved in many serious things, but I never had to watch anybody die before me," Courson says. "You have to know that you did the best you can do. And one was saved. I do know that if I hadn't been there two people would've died instead of one."