By Larry Smith
Emily Bowman, a frail 72-year-old diabetic, was sleeping in her recliner at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 9 when a fire alarm sounded at Briarleigh Court, a 40-unit apartment complex for the elderly in Hillsville, Va. Instead of going out an exterior door that would have meant safety, the startled senior citizen opened an interior door and stepped into a burning, smoke-filled hallway.
Virginia State Trooper Matt Cochran, 28, was on patrol less than a minute away. He and two other police officers arrived at the scene even before firefighters. Together, they began banging on residents' doors. Then Cochran heard screams. What he did next has led PARADE and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to name him their 2010 Police Officer of the Year.
"I had a flashlight," Cochran recalls, "but it was absolutely worthless. The smoke was so thick you could feel it. One step in, and you couldn't see the doorway. My uniform was starting to melt." Crawling on his hands and knees, he made three attempts to reach the source of the cries. "I couldn't find her the first time. The second time I had to come out for air. The third time I bumped into her. Then I stood up and walked her out. There were three explosions from residents' oxygen tanks. The third one sounded like a bomb going off. It shook the whole building."
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