Two Roselle Park first responders – Roselle Park Police Department (RPPD) Patrolman Robert Harms and Roselle Park Fire Department (RPFD) Deputy Fire Chief Steve Thompson – were recognized for risking their personal safety to rescue a man from a burning car.
On Saturday, May 5th at around 7:41 a.m. – the morning of Roselle Park’s USO 5K Run/Walk – several calls came into the emergency hotline reporting a car fire on the 100 block of West Lincoln Avenue.
One caller reported a strange noise and smoke coming from a car parked on the street.
Both the police and fire departments were dispatched to the scene and RPPD responded immediately but by the time they arrived, the front of the car was in flames.
“Nobody’s in that car?,” Patrolman Harms called out to a resident who had been looking on in front of their house. Officers Michael Smith, Jeffery Smith, and Avsar Patel were also on-site.
“I don’t know,” replied the onlooker.
All the windows were tinted & closed, and the only thing anyone could clearly see was the smoke that was billowing out more and more. No one knew if or how many people were in the car.
Grabbing a utility axe from his squad car, officer Harms raced over to the passenger side door and smashed the window. He peeked through the black smoke coming out and thought he saw something – or more accurately – someone. Running over to the driver’s side he whispered to himself, “Is somebody in there?”
Volunteer RPFD Deputy Fire Chief Thompson arrived on the scene and started calling in the situation, “Deputy 2 is on the scene. We have a vehicle on fire.”
Opening the driver’s side door, officer Harm’s fear became a reality. A man was in the driver’s seat.
Fire Deputy Thompson went to help officer Harms and with fire coming out of the bottom of the car now, both men reached through the smoke and heat that was now in their faces and grabbed the man to get him out of the burning car.
“Get out! Get out of the car!” yelled Patrolman Harms and both men began pulling him out but something was not right. For those unfamiliar with officer Harms, his built frame looks like he can pretty much lift 200 lbs. easily and Deputy Fire Chief Thompson is a tall man with seasoned experience carrying 30 lbs. of equipment when responding to a fire call.
But still, the man appeared stuck. As they kept yanking officer Harms even asked, “Is his seatbelt on?”
As it turns out, the man had his right hand clutching the steering wheel. He was resisting them.
Both first responders were basically fighting with the man to save his life – all the while feeling flames under their feet and smoke starting to burn their eyes and throats.
Finally, they pulled him out and dragged him down the street. RPPD Officer Avsar Patel took over for Fire Deputy Chief Thompson as the firefighter went into response mode to address the car. Other officers ran to the car to make sure no one else was still in it.
Both patrolmen picked the man up and put him on the sidewalk grass.
All this happened in the span of about a minute.
The 42-year-old man did not suffer any visible serious injuries and was transported to Trinitas Hospital for evaluation.
Had the phone call come in 15 seconds later, had the police not arrived on scene so quickly, had Officer Harms not broken the window and looked in, had not he and firefighter Thompson not pulled him out, it could have cost a man his life. Not to mention the real risk of serious – or worse – for the men who arrived not knowing anything other than ‘vehicle on fire’.
But all those things did happen and everyone got to go home.
While the USO 5K and other Sunday morning rituals started their paces, a fire was put out and a man was saved. But, as is the case with the reality of having such a job, everyone went on to the next call when the scene was cleared.
Just another day on the job.
Last Thursday night, the governing body along with Police Chief Paul Morrison and Fire Chief Joseph Signorello Jr. took a moment from the business of government to recognize the two men for what they did that day. In reality, Roselle Park was recognizing and thanking all of those men and women in town who respond to a voice over a two-way radio telling them something is wrong.
And they answer, not knowing the outcome but all the while knowing what is at stake – both for them and those who need them in the most serious of situations.
Both men accepted their certificates in full uniform, representing not only themselves but also their brothers and sisters in arms.