St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS, MO — Officer Sandy Lentz was parked in her city police pickup truck, on a detail to inspect commercial vehicles traveling on and off Interstate 70 near North 10th and Chambers streets, when two cars sped past.
The second careened into a concrete train trestle.
The 19-year police veteran watched as the front of the dark-colored sedan folded around the base, throwing its driver forward like a rag doll. The back end of the car lifted several feet off the ground before landing, sending a plume of dust into the air. Then she saw the word "police" spelled out on the side of the car.
She ran about 30 feet toward the wreckage, believing the occupant could not have survived the impact. She found Caseyville Officer Jeff Wilkinson alive, but suffering from a substantial head injury. He was conscious. And his car's engine had caught fire, Lentz recalled.
"I told him to, 'Get out, it's on fire!'" Lentz recalled of the June 26, 2012 ordeal. "But he told me he couldn't because he thought his foot or hip was broken."
She looked at his feet. They were pinned behind the brake pedal. She radioed for help as she raced back to her own vehicle to get a fire extinguisher and frantically unlock storage boxes in search of a tool to free him. She emptied her fire extinguisher on the burning police car, but the flames returned. Traffic continued to flow past.
"I know from being assigned to the commercial vehicle unit that trucks are required to carry fire extinguishers," said Lentz. She ran in front of the first big-box truck she saw, waving her arms and ordering the driver to get out his extinguisher.
It was enough to quell the flames.
"If he hadn't stopped and helped me out, who knows what would have happened?" Lentz said. "I don't know how much I could have done on my own had he not pulled over."
The trucker, Michael Hendricks, 43, of Medora, Ill. was delivering liquor that day.
"I wanted to bend that brake pedal so bad and get him out of there, but I'm no paramedic," Hendricks recalled. "It's hard to say whether I would have stopped on my own that day because, as a civilian, you don't want to get involved and get in the way. I just remember this female cop jumping in front of my truck saying, 'Fire extinguisher!' So I threw it in neutral, grabbed my extinguisher and put the fire out.
"I had to drive back with no fire extinguisher," he said. "Luckily, I didn't get pulled over."
Lentz directed traffic as firefighters and paramedics freed Wilkinson from the patrol car. She noticed several other truck drivers had stopped and positioned their rigs as barricades to protect emergency vehicles.
Wilkinson had been pursuing a car carrying suspects in the theft of several pairs of jeans from a store in Fairview Heights. Caseyville police did not return a phone call seeking comment on his recovery.
Lentz said she wonders about Wilkinson every time her patrols pass that location and she sees the burn marks that remain on the trestle. She said she still wrestles with how she might have done better that day, what she could have done differently.
"The fact that I couldn't get him out weighed heavily on me," she said.
But Capt. Dan Sutter of the St. Louis Fire Department said what she did made a large difference.
"With her quick-thinking and action, that really averted something that could have been more tragic," Sutter said. "When a car fire happens and someone is trapped, it oftentimes becomes a real tragedy because of all of the combustible materials and the tremendous heat they put out inside a car."
Lentz said she has adopted a new ritual since the experience.
"I always unlock my tool boxes when my shift starts, so I can grab and go if I need to. And I always make sure everyone has their extinguishers, I never overlook it," she said of her inspections of commercial vehicles.
"I never viewed what I did that day as saving a life. I did what anybody would have done had they viewed a crash like that."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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