Calif. officers lauded for rescue from burning van

It could have been one of the most tragic car crashes in Santa Cruz County history

Mercury News

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — On Feb. 2 shortly after 7 p.m., an ex-convict in a stolen sport-utility vehicle plowed head-on into a van carrying two adults and two young children. The SUV caught fire, with flames shooting 30 feet into the air. The family was trapped, and the van appeared about to explode with them inside.

Instead, two Santa Cruz police officers and a sheriff's deputy who had been chasing the parolee broke into the smoky vehicle and pulled the Santa Cruz family to safety, seconds before the van turned into a fireball.

On Wednesday, the Santa Cruz Police Department honored officer Carter Jones and reserve officer Scott Christie with Life Saving Awards for their quick action and extraordinary bravery.

But don't try to call them heroes.

"I did what every officer in this department would have done," said Christie, 44, who is the department's only reserve officer.

"He doesn't even get paid to do what he does, but he's done it for nine years," Police Chief Howard Skerry said.

Christie said he's a full-time insurance agent in Soquel and works as a cop for free about 40 hours a month simply because he loves police work. He lives about a half-mile from the crash site on Old San Jose Road.

Christie said he knew the van could explode but didn't give it a second thought. "All I knew was a family was in there with young kids," he said. "It had to be done."

When the officers approached the smoky van with tinted windows, they could hear the children crying hysterically and people trying to break the windows.

After sheriff's deputy Stefan Fish broke the van's back window and Christie scooped out the glass with his hands, Christie saw the two children: a 5-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl.

With her long, wavy hair, the girl immediately reminded Christie of his 7-year-old daughter. Christie, a father of four, pulled the girl and her brother out of the window and carried them to safety, while Fish and Jones pulled the parents out a front door.

"Every day you come to work and don't know what will happen," said Jones, 28, a Santa Cruz native who has been with the force four years. "That's why we all love the job so much."

Jones said he was so high on adrenaline that he didn't give the danger a thought. But when the van blew up, he realized that he — and six other people — could have died.

"When he got home that night, he couldn't sleep at all," said Jones' fiancee, Nicole Hopping, 23, who added that she wasn't surprised by his actions.

"It's very typical of his personality," she said. "He's a born leader."

Lt. Rudy Escalante said Wednesday that the Santa Cruz family was moving to New Zealand and couldn't attend the ceremony.

Authorities did not release the family's name.

Escalante had sent the two officers to respond to a call for help from the sheriff's department. Deputies needed assistance pursuing a parolee in a stolen car who was considered dangerous because he had a history of weapons possession, narcotics violations and assault with a deadly weapon.

Carter and Jones helped sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers chase the parolee from the Santa Cruz yacht harbor to Soquel village, where he began speeding toward the summit on Old San Jose Road. When the parolee rounded a curve about a mile out of town, he swerved into path of the van.

He tried to flee but was soon captured.

So will the honor inspire Christie to join the force full-time?

No way, the easygoing insurance man said half-jokingly.

"I couldn't support a family of six with what you get paid here," he said with a smile.

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