Pa. officers responding to domestic enter burning home to save woman

By Chico Harlan and Jim McKinnon
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BELLEVUE, Pa. — Around 11:30 Monday night, Bellevue police Officers Bill Scheller and Earl Grubbs III arrived at a small apartment building on Maryland Avenue. Somebody there had placed a 911 call — "some threats being made over the phone," Officer Scheller said — and then hung up.

Neither officer expected anything serious. The caller never mentioned smoke or fire.

When Officers Scheller and Grubbs got to the 16-unit Maryland Terrace Apartments, a resident opened the secure door to let them inside.

"And as soon as we opened that door," Officer Scheller said, "it went from, like, a nothing call to 'holy cow' in eight seconds."

Smoke had already filled the hallway of the building's first floor.

Other residents walked outside unharmed, but the officers — without fire safety gear — rescued one woman. All three ended up yesterday at Allegheny General Hospital, though both officers were later treated and released.

The woman, whom police did not identify, was conscious but incoherent after officers dragged her from the building, Officer Scheller said. He said he believed she lived alone. Her condition was not available yesterday.

Police are taught not to enter burning buildings, Bellevue Police Chief Michael Bookser said. But in this case, the officers, who were the first at the scene, responded as they had to.

Before firefighters arrived, the two officers, both with more than 10 years' experience, began pounding on first-floor doors, trying to find and warn people who might be inside.

"We made it halfway through the hallway. We could tell right away somebody might be inside [one apartment]," Officer Scheller said. "We forced entry into that apartment, and we started shouting.

"We could hear a muffled voice. We crawled in about five feet, and that's where we encountered her, laying on the floor."

Together, the officers dragged the woman toward the stairwell, away from the thickest smoke. By then, firefighters had arrived and took over on the first floor.

The policemen spent the next minutes searching the higher floors of the building, where the air remained breathable.

Some 10 minutes after exiting the building, Officer Scheller, 43, collapsed at the scene. He said he wasn't sure if it was due to smoke inhalation or the jolt of adrenaline.

First-floor resident Raymond David Jackson, 48, said yesterday that the woman rescued from the apartment had moved in only recently.

"She would have been [dead] if they didn't go in there," Chief Bookser said. "They saved her life."

The other residents stayed outside for several hours, then returned to the building.

The fire is under investigation. Police are uncertain of a link between the initial call and the fire. No damage estimate was available.

Copyright 2007 P.G. Publishing Co.

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