By Officer Paul Elenius
Tempe Police Department
TEMPE, Ariz. — I became a Tempe police officer in 2007. When asked why, I gave every rookie’s response: "Because I want to help people."
If asked that question now, I would provide the same response, tempered with a deeper realization of the hardships and rewards that being a police officer entails.
It was 2227 hours on October 7. I got back into my patrol vehicle after assisting the Phoenix Fire Department with an intoxicated subject at a local grocery store. The first call of the night, and the shift was off to a fairly easy start.
Five minutes later, I was dispatched to 2401 W. Southern Ave., referencing a trailer home on fire.
The call stated that the residents had evacuated, causing a sigh of relief as I thought of where to park to assist the fire department without blocking their water hoses.
Pulling into the neighborhood, I didn’t need directions. I could smell the smoke and see the fire pouring out of the roof.
I pulled up to a panicked scene with neighbors milling around. A man was yelling that the residents were still trapped inside, and that he had tried to break a window without success.
My sigh of relief was short lived as I listened for the fire engines that I knew were en-route, but there was silence.
As I approached I heard a scream from inside the rear door. With no fire training, images of a flashover from the movie Back Draft ran through my mind, but something had to be done.
I tried the door, realized it was locked, stepped back and gave it my best kick. The door didn’t budge. Panic began to set in. I was in this line of work to save people and the thought of not being able to went against everything that I and every officer stands for.
I called over the radio for a door ram, and gave the door another kick. This time, the frame shattered, although there was a two-by-four nailed across the door and a desk behind it.
Black smoke rolled out. I was unable to see and took a step inside, praying whoever was inside was close by.
Suddenly, a hand reached up from the ground. I grabbed on, shouting to stay low as I pulled and dragged the barely conscious elderly female out to the sidewalk, where someone said there was another person inside.
Going back inside, I found her husband lying on the ground. With an arm around him, I dragged him out as he did his best to assist, weakly crawling.
My squad mate, Officer Giltinan had arrived and assisted in moving the victims a safe distance.
Giltinan didn’t leave my side all the way to the hospital, where I was transported for smoke inhalation. Knowing your brother is with you is a very comforting feeling. My other brothers, the Tempe Firefighters, could not have been more supportive, and their kind words and support will always be appreciated.
I am blessed to work in a city where the police and fire departments share a healthy, respectful relationship and this incident just made that partnership much more evident.
I never want to lose sight of the reason I became a police officer: to protect and help people. Always prepare for the worst and pray for the best.