By Stella M. Chavez and Brandon Formby, Staff Writers Read Officer Down
Fort Worth police Officer Dwayne Freeto couldn't figure out how to change the tire on the BMW that was stalled on the side of Interstate 35W on Sunday. But he told the driver and her friend that because it was a slow night, he'd wait in his squad car until a tow truck arrived.
Within minutes, the 34-year-old rookie officer's car was rear-ended by a Lexus, and both cars immediately erupted in flames. Officer Freeto was pinned in his Ford Crown Victoria and died at the scene.
"All you see is these big flames coming toward you," said Rogelio Delgado, who had pulled his pickup in front of his friend's BMW early Sunday to try to help her change a blown-out tire. "The impact was really, really hard."
Mr. Delgado said he pulled friend Adriana Delgadillo from her car and went to help Officer Freeto. He banged on the squad car's passenger window but couldn't break the glass. He grabbed the jack they had been using and broke the window.
"I ran to the other side and broke ... [the driver's side] window and tried to reach as far as I could," he said. "I remember I couldn't see anything or breathe. It was too, too hot. I was trying to see if I could touch him or feel him, but I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't save him."
On Monday, Fort Worth police identified the driver of the Lexus as 21-year-old Samuel Lee Hilburn of Fort Worth. Mr. Delgado and other witnesses said that Mr. Hilburn was on fire after he escaped his car Sunday. He was flown to Parkland Memorial Hospital's burn unit, where he was in critical condition Monday.
Police spokesman Dean Sullivan said that speed and alcohol were likely factors in the crash and that Mr. Hilburn could be charged with intoxication manslaughter. The Tarrant County district attorney's office will review evidence before deciding on any charges.
"They'll prepare a warrant once he's medically cleared," Lt. Sullivan said.
Officer Freeto, an Army veteran who lived in Grandview, is survived by his wife, Karen, and two daughters, 9-year-old Jordan and 3-year-old Jenna. His death came just a little more than a year after Fort Worth Officer Henry "Hank" Nava was fatally shot in the head while serving a warrant at a house in November 2005. Lt. Sullivan said the police force was still reeling from the news on Monday.
"We're busy planning and grieving," he said.
Visitation for Officer Freeto will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Greenwood Memorial Cemetery's Independence Hall in Fort Worth. His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at First United Methodist Church, also in Fort Worth.
Mr. Delgado was on his way home early Sunday when Ms. Delgadillo called him to say she had gotten a flat tire. Mr. Delgado went to help her but couldn't figure out how to get the tire off the car. They called roadside assistance and were waiting in her car when Officer Freeto pulled up. He, too, had trouble with the car's tire.
"He kept saying, 'I've never seen anything like this,'" Mr. Delgado said.
The 28-year-old said he was surprised when Officer Freeto offered to stay until roadside assistance arrived.
"I said, 'Are you sure,'" Mr. Delgado said. "He said, 'Yeah, the night's pretty slow anyway.'"
Officer Freeto returned to his squad car. About five minutes later, Mr. Delgado and Ms. Delgadillo heard the Lexus slam into the squad car. The police cruiser then hit the BMW and pushed it into Mr. Delgado's pickup. Ms. Delgadillo said she can't put the scene out of her mind.
"I keep replaying the car in flames over and over," she said.
Officer Freeto's 2005 Crown Victoria is a model favored by many police officers because of its room, power and rear-wheel drive. But some departments have stopped purchasing them because of concerns about the cars igniting when rear-ended because of where the fuel tank is placed.
Most, including Officer Freeto's, are now fitted with safety features to prevent the tanks from rupturing and igniting. Lt. Sullivan said Sunday that it is too early to determine what made the cruiser and Lexus ignite.
Officer Freeto graduated from the department's police academy in March. He was described by colleagues and relatives as a friendly guy who always smiled and put others before himself. Police work was something he loved, they said.
Mr. Delgado described him as a good cop who was just trying to help.
"I also thought he was just helping protect us and the other vehicles," he said. "He could have easily just left. But he said, 'I will stay and wait for the tow truck.'"
Mr. Delgado said Officer Freeto's family has been in his thoughts since Sunday's incident and that he had a message for Karen Freeto.
"Tell her I'm sorry I couldn't help," Mr. Delgado said. "I did the best I could."
The family of Officer Freeto was also on Ms. Delgadillo's mind. She said she considers him "my hero, my angel."