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How brotherhood helped me save 2 from fire

An Ariz. officer recalls saving a couple from a house fire and his recovery

Editor's note: As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of the biggest and most heroic news stories, and reconnect with some of the officers and departments involved in the incidents to find out what has developed since, and how the department has faired in the days and months following.  

In this article, Officer Paul Elenius writes about how brotherhood — not just between he and his faithful partner, but with the local fire department — made all the difference in his recovery after breaking down a mobile home door to save the couple who was trapped inside. 

By Officer Paul Elenius
Tempe Police Department

TEMPE, Ariz. — I became a Tempe police officer in 2007. When asked why, I gave every rookie’s response: "Because I want to help people." 

If asked that question now, I would provide the same response, tempered with a deeper realization of the hardships and rewards that being a police officer entails.

Officer Paul Elenius, left, speaks to the press as members of the Tempe Police Department look on. (Photo courtesy of Tempe PD)
Officer Paul Elenius, left, speaks to the press as members of the Tempe Police Department look on. (Photo courtesy of Tempe PD)

It was 2227 hours on October 7.  I got back into my patrol vehicle after assisting the Phoenix Fire Department with an intoxicated subject at a local grocery store.  The first call of the night, and the shift was off to a fairly easy start.

Five minutes later, I was dispatched to 2401 W. Southern Ave., referencing a trailer home on fire. 

The call stated that the residents had evacuated, causing a sigh of relief as I thought of where to park to assist the fire department without blocking their water hoses.

Pulling into the neighborhood, I didn’t need directions. I could smell the smoke and see the fire pouring out of the roof.

I pulled up to a panicked scene with neighbors milling around.  A man was yelling that the residents were still trapped inside, and that he had tried to break a window without success. 

My sigh of relief was short lived as I listened for the fire engines that I knew were en-route, but there was silence.

As I approached I heard a scream from inside the rear door. With no fire training, images of a flashover from the movie Back Draft ran through my mind, but something had to be done. 

I tried the door, realized it was locked, stepped back and gave it my best kick.  The door didn’t budge.  Panic began to set in.  I was in this line of work to save people and the thought of not being able to went against everything that I and every officer stands for. 

I called over the radio for a door ram, and gave the door another kick.  This time, the frame shattered, although there was a two-by-four nailed across the door and a desk behind it.

Black smoke rolled out.  I was unable to see and took a step inside, praying whoever was inside was close by. 

Suddenly, a hand reached up from the ground. I grabbed on, shouting to stay low as I pulled and dragged the barely conscious elderly female out to the sidewalk, where someone said there was another person inside. 

Going back inside, I found her husband lying on the ground.  With an arm around him, I dragged him out as he did his best to assist, weakly crawling. 

My squad mate, Officer Giltinan had arrived and assisted in moving the victims a safe distance.

Giltinan didn’t leave my side all the way to the hospital, where I was transported for smoke inhalation.  Knowing your brother is with you is a very comforting feeling.  My other brothers, the Tempe Firefighters, could not have been more supportive, and their kind words and support will always be appreciated. 

I am blessed to work in a city where the police and fire departments share a healthy, respectful relationship and this incident just made that partnership much more evident. 

I never want to lose sight of the reason I became a police officer: to protect and help people.  Always prepare for the worst and pray for the best.  

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