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Officers risk their lives to rescue people from burning building

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When a fire broke out at an upholstery shop below apartments on Long Island, five Nassau County police officers arrived first and, even though they had no protective gear, risked their own safety for the strangers inside.

Thick smoke was billowing out of the windows of an apartment consumed by flames. Nassau County police Officer Luis Ascencio saw two people trapped at the second floor window, frantically waving for help.

Ascencio was the first to respond to the fire, which broke out at an upholstery shop below several apartments in West Hempstead, Long Island.

About 100 firefighters from more than 10 departments would eventually respond to battle the January 8 blaze, but not before Ascencio and four of his Nassau County Police Department comrades had to make an important call.

Knowing lives were in danger, should they rush toward the flames without any protective gear, or wait for the fire trucks?

The officers got a ladder from a nearby construction site, but it wouldn’t fully extend. They were about 5 feet short of the window and the frightened people inside.

If they were going to save them, the officers knew they needed to get close enough to the flames to help pull the people out.

Danger in the line of duty

All over the country, when lives are in danger, law enforcement officers must make difficult decisions like this one, often at a moment’s notice.

For example, last month in Mahwah, New Jersey, officers saved a 9-year-old girl who was trapped on the third floor of a burning building. She jumped from a balcony into their arms.

Days before in Schererville, Indiana, a police officer was first on the scene of a home engulfed in flames, with smoke pouring from the front door. When neighbors told the officer the 61-year-old man who lived in the house had collapsed in his back doorway, the officer ran to help. Moving the man away from the flames, he began CPR until the man’s heart started beating on its own and the fire department and emergency medical crews arrived.

In Omaha, Nebraska, this past December, officers ran in and out of a burning house, without protective gear, to rescue the people trapped inside. All the residents were physically disabled and needed help getting out, police said. A veteran officer was taken to a local hospital for smoke inhalation, and his partner, on his first shift after graduating from the police academy, was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene.

Like the officers in Omaha, police outside the burning building in West Hempstead decided to act, risking their own safety for the strangers inside.

‘It just exploded’

As the flames raged, the policemen were able to get the ladder close enough to the window to guide the trapped couple as they climbed out. Officer James Schurlein helped a woman to safety.

“She came out of the window, I was afraid that she was going to fall. And if she had fallen, I was going to go down with her because there was no other options. But she listened to me, I told her what to do, she listened, she came down the ladder slowly,” he said.

Officer Peter Duvenhorst blocked traffic with his police car and evacuated surrounding buildings. There were still a few workers inside an adjacent store, he said, and all the while, the fire grew and smoke got thicker.

“You could barely see your hand in front of your face as you were getting closer. You could actually feel as you took a breath that you were struggling to take a breath. It was very, very heavy,” he said.

Back at the ladder, Ascencio was going up to help the 30-year-old man still inside when suddenly, a window at the corner of the building nearest to them blew out. Flames shot up, the officers said, and the wind blew against them. Glass went everywhere.

“It just exploded. And then the heat came out,” Schurlein said, “that was when we had to back off, because there was nothing else we could do.”

Fortunately, that’s when the Fire Department arrived.

A fireman jumped off the truck wearing protective gear and carrying a bigger and longer ladder, said Schurlein.

A stranded family

Officers Evan Marro and Jason Dennington arrived at the scene, rushing to the back of the building to see if anyone else needed help. They saw a family, including two children, stranded on the roof.

They would later learn the family tried to go out of the front of the building but went to the roof because they couldn’t get downstairs past the smoke and flames.

As one young girl made her way down the ladder, she became frightened until Marro assured her she would be all right.

“I told her to jump because she was kind of scared. … She jumped into my arms, I grabbed her, put her on the ground and then we assisted everybody else to get down.”

“You see kids that need help — you don’t really think, we just reacted,” Dennington said.

As the West Hempstead Fire Department got the fire under control, the potential for disaster became clear. Working together, the Fire Department and Nassau County Police Department rescued eight residents from various parts of the burning buildings.

Authorities said the blaze destroyed or heavily damaged seven businesses and 14 apartments, displacing 60 people. The Nassau County fire marshal is investigating the cause of the fire.

While many police officers are trained in basic lifesaving techniques, they aren’t necessarily equipped to perform daring fire rescues.

“We’re trained that we don’t have the gear to go inside, but if you can, pull somebody out of a window or break a window to see if somebody is in there and let a firefighter know,” Marro said. “You don’t want to become a victim yourself, because you’re no help to anybody at that point.”

Nassau County, the police force and the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association honored the police officers for their heroic actions and expertise.

Police officers must rely on training and instinct to make sure fire doesn’t harm those they are trying to serve, while doing their best to keep themselves and their fellow officers safe.

Working closely with fire department colleagues, most officers see what others might consider daring heroism as routine.

“Well, we had to assist the people that need help,” said Duvenhorst, “That’s our job.”

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