N.J. Officers Save Mother, Son from Burning Van and Live Wires

An elderly woman and her son owe their lives to a detective and two officers from the Ewing (N.J.) Police Department who risked electrocution to extract the two from their crashed van.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

Officer Jeff Caldwell, Officer Fred Dow, and Det. Michael Pellegrino.Officer Jeff Caldwell, Officer Fred Dow, and Det. Michael Pellegrino.

An elderly woman and her son owe their lives to a detective and two officers from the Ewing (N.J.) Police Department who risked electrocution to extract the two from their crashed van. For their efforts, Det. Michael Pellegrino and Officers Jeff Caldwell and Fred Dow have been named the June 2012 Officers of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. "We knew we had to do something, never realizing what the outcome could’ve been," says Det. Michael Pellegrino.

Temporarily disoriented by extreme glare from the sun, an elderly man crashed his passenger van into a pole on the afternoon of Jan. 18. The driver was able to exit the vehicle, but his octogenarian wife and their adult special-needs son were still inside. The pole and the major electrical transformer attached to it had fallen along the passenger side of the vehicle, blocking their exit. Because she had broken her leg in the crash, the woman could not move herself. The son seemed not to understand the gravity of the situation.

The call went out to the Ewing (N.J.) Police Department, and Det. Michael Pellegrino was less than a mile away where he'd just finished his shift in an unmarked car. He reached the scene just after Officer Jeff Caldwell in his marked unit, followed by Officer Fred Dow. They evaluated the situation to determine the best course of action, considering the downed transformer and the power line humming loudly lying on top of the smoking van. Caldwell had notified the fire department and electric company, but they were still en route.

"When we arrived, the driver had already exited the vehicle, so Jeff and I knew we had a little bit of time because even with the wires on the car he was able to get out and he didn't perish right there," says Pellegrino.

Using this information, Caldwell, who had been an apprentice linesman servicing power lines, reasoned they should remove the victims, even though it's dangerous whenever a wire is touching a vehicle. "Otherwise we and the people that had gathered there were going to watch the victims perish in the car," says Pellegrino. "There's no time to think. On this job you have to be smart but take educated risks."

Caldwell retrieved a Halligan tool from his patrol vehicle to break the driver's window and then was able to manually unlock the doors from the inside. All three assisted in removing the female passenger through the driver's side door. They then also helped the couple's adult son out of the van, and took both victims to a grassy area on the side of the road.

Just 30 seconds after they reached safety, a series of explosions started in the van, and it started to blaze.

"We didn't realize at that time that there were actually 13,000 volts going from wire to wire draped across the van," Pellegrino says. "It was only a one in 1 million chance that we weren't going to die as soon as we touched the vehicle." It's believed the van's still fully intact rubber tires grounded the vehicle, providing the protection they needed to safely retrieve the victims.

"It definitely gives you a different perspective of the job because it makes you appreciate what you've done…not be heroic, but be able to prolong somebody's life because of what you've done," says Pellegrino. He's thankful that Officers Caldwell and Dow were there, and is proud that they were able to work together to create the best possible outcome. All three officers received their department’s medal of honor in addition to other accolades from local organizations. 

Pellegrino says recognition from the NLEOMF is particularly special to him because for 10 years he has participated in the Police Unity Tour bicycle ride across the northeast of the United States to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. for Police Week.

"Every year I look at the NLEOMF officers of the month and hear them reading out their stories," says Pellegrino. "Now to be one of those people, and be recognized with those other officers from across the country, I'm honored. You can't even imagine how it feels to be that person."

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Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
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