Officer Escapes Death, Rescues Runaway Driver

Allan Appel PhotoWojtek Wacowski PhotoA cop chasing an apparent runaway driver survived a telephone pole crashing onto his cruiser early Wednesday morning—then rushed out to save the fleeing driver just before the driver’s car burst into flames.

The dramatic rescue—and a related fire that displaced two people from a Front Street building—took place just after 1 a.m. in Fair Haven. Police Chief Dean Esserman commended the officer for “remarkable heroism” in saving lives.

Here’s what happened, according to Lt. Rob Criscuolo of the police department’s accident reconstruction team:

FacebookThe incident began when Officer Mike Criscuolo (no relation to Rob Criscuolo) sought to stop the driver of a 1991 Oldsmobile as he ran through a red light on Blatchley Avenue.

The driver sped away. A chase was on.

The driver tore along Front Street through the intersection of Grand Avenue.

Then he lost control. His car skidded on its side. It hit a telephone pole and came to rest on the passenger side. It landed next to a building at 185 Grand Ave.

Then the pole, which had two transformers, landed on top of Criscuolo’s car. It crashed right through the windshield—and just missed him.

Criscuolo dashed out of the car. He hopped a picket fence to get at the driver’s car. The Oldsmobile’s driver’s door was in the air. Criscuolo ran to the passenger door, opened it, crawled in.

The car was smoking. A fire was starting.

Criscuolo undid the driver’s seat belt. He dragged the driver out. Then he kicked part of the fence down and dragged him to safety.

The car then erupted in flames.

Then the building caught on fire, too.

The driver and officer went to the hospital. Neither of them suffered life-threatening injuries. The officer was subsequently released. It turned out the driver, who is 52 and from North Branford, had an outstanding state police warrant on larceny charges, according to Lt. Criscuolo. He also had no driver’s license. His car was a burnt-out shell. It belonged to a “relative,” according to police.

“We’re fortunate,” said Chief Esserman, who was at the scene of the crash Wednesday. “If the pole had been three feet in another direction, or there had been a second officer in the passenger seat [of the cruiser], we could well have lost an officer early this morning.

“The officer showed remarkable heroism in rushing to that car, getting down on the ground under the car to get the passenger door open, unbuckling the driver, and rescuing him from the car, which then went up in fire.”

“They should make a movie out of what he did,” Lt. Criscuolo said of Officer Criscuolo, who was sworn in as a cop in December 2012.

Firefighters got the call at 1:06 a.m. A crew arriving from the Lombard Street firehouse arrived five minutes later to encounter a “massive fireball,” said Supervisor of Fire Investigations Todd Kornacki. Firefighters had the blaze under control at 1:57 a.m.

“It’s a bit of a miracle no one was killed,” mayoral Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes said later Wednesday morning at the scene, which police had taped off.

Hundreds of people living in the immediate area were still without power as of 9 a.m.

Allan Appel PhotoThe building that caught fire, at 185 Front St., is owned by neighborhood developer Fereshteh Bekhrad, who was on the scene. She said the building is not fully insured. She also said a city building official told her the building is no longer inhabitable. “I’m going to do an investigation to see what’s lost,” she said.

Two people live in the building. Both escaped the fire.

Wojtek Wacowski is one of them. He also works for Bekhrad. He said the crash woke him up; he grabbed a bag with some clothes, including a pair of sneakers, and his laptop. His cat died in the fire, he said.

“I was standing on the roof when the firemen arrived,” Wacowski said. “They did nothing at first because they were afraid of the power lines. They let the car burn. I had an extinguisher and started to use it. But they wouldn’t let me.”

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

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posted by: ChrisNHV on May 7, 2014  11:17am

I don’t see how creating a public safety hazard is heroic at all.

According to the CT state Uniform Statewide Pursuit Policy (14-283a),  “The decision to initiate a pursuit shall be based on the pursuing police officer’s conclusion that the immediate danger to the police officer and the public created by the pursuit is less than the immediate or potential danger to the public should the occupants of such vehicle remain at large.”

What part of running a red light on Blatchley Ave at 1AM constitutes the sort of immediate danger that justifies this? The police have in the past been proven to ignore even the meager safety procedures for chases, and have ignored orders to call off chases from their own command. There are a lot of questions open here.

posted by: Paul Wessel on May 7, 2014  12:00pm

I am always amazed when I read about arrests in Fair Haven and the (typically) guys are from East Haven, Branford, North Branford.  Got to watch our for that destabilizing suburban influence…...

posted by: Shaggybob on May 7, 2014  12:38pm

I applaud the officer for his heroism, but this could have been avoided if a pursuit did not ensue. I thought there was strict NO PURSUIT policy in New Haven for this exact reason.

posted by: Nathan on May 7, 2014  12:57pm

Pursued suspect, avoided death, then rescued and apprehended suspect?  Like a boss.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on May 7, 2014  1:03pm

There are a lot of questions to be answered. Why did this officer feel it was his responsibility to try and stop a motor vehicle, that speeds through an intersection, while the overhead signal was red, fails to slow down, continues on into a highly residential neighborhood, unstopped, continuing to drive a 3200 lb vehicle in a manner which disregard all well thought out legal, and logical controls for safely operating in an area that would put any other person, or people in other motor vehicles, or in their homes, at risk of serious injury or death. Why would this officer even follow this car, and risk his own safety, career, professional reputation, and possibley the lives of other people?

Well if the runaway driver is already putting others (who are unknown until the eventual collision occurs), at risk, from the perspective of this officer’s experience, and rock solid past performance and reputation as a police officer and person (which is Officer Mike Criscuolo)I guess the taxpayers would have to trust his judgment, which has been pretty solid for over a decade that he has selflessly served the people of New Haven.

And the sentiment that was manifest in the prior comment, which is held by many in the public who wish to quickly condemn police officers, is one of the reasons that New Haven has been losing great talent for years now.

One comment. That’s what it takes, and some desk jockey advisor in city hall will demand something be done to document that an event that this was caused to happen by the officer.

The alternative is for all of these officers to back off, just go to dispatch jobs, if there is no complainant do nothing, even if you see something that might result in the maiming or death of some innocent person. Many of the modern cops in the NHPD have been doing this for years, but not Mike. Why? He cares too much.

posted by: Shaggybob on May 7, 2014  4:26pm


I trust all officers to follow the rules, policies and laws that are at their disposal. Some situations cannot be avoided, some can. Its a judgment call. Having your hands tied is apart of the job too.

The NH Register stated he had him pulled over and the driver sped off after stopping, he definitely had a plate # and possibly a description.

He could have used better judgment based on the stories, but then again neither one of us was there and sometimes criminals just keep running w/o being pursued.

Basic police policy is if you have a description and/or plate number and they run (with a car) in a heavily populated area, you get them later, as they almost always do.

But you are right about the desk jockey advisor in City Hall.

posted by: Ex-NHPD on May 7, 2014  5:16pm

Over half my career at the NHPD was as a Supervisor.  I terminated more pursuits than anyone.  The NHPD does not have a “No Pursuit Policy”; it has a strict Pursuit Policy.  There are many factors to consider when allowing or ending a pursuit: Seriousness of incident. Weather/road conditions.  Traffic. Visibility. Public danger if not engaged. Ability to identify the subject.

That being said….a 52 year old unlicensed driver, with an outstanding arrest warrant, in a vehicle that was not his, drove through a red light at 1:00AM.  When signaled to stop by the police, he fled. He continued to drive recklessly and struck a pole. 

And this is the NHPD’s fault?  I know for a fact that even when attempts to stop/pursue are ended immediately when a driver fails to stop, more often than not, those drivers will continue to drive as if they are being pursued. 

If a cop does not try to stop someone for blowing a red light/stop sign/speeding, and that person ends up hurting or killing someone, the public blames the cop, again.

In this case, based upon those factors, and the driver’s attempt to flee, an officer would be negligent if he did not attempt to at least monitor where the car was going, and get a description to other cops.

The main reason I was leery to have NHPD officers engage in pursuits was their lack of training; not of the NHPD Pursuit Policy, but how to perform a pursuit.  Agencies that have freer Pursuit Policies train their officers in all areas of operating the police car and notifiying of the progress.  Without this training, it was not unusual to see NHPD (and other local agencies) violate safe pursuit guidelines (ex.-speeding through red lights/intersections).

While risky, Police Pursuits, at times, are a necessary part of police work.  Strict adherence to policy, along with regular training in the policy and the driving, can lower that danger. 

Was the guy last night a clear danger to the public, before being seen by NHPD?  YES.

posted by: Lao ri on May 8, 2014  9:05am

Who pays for the damage resulting from this 52 year old unlicensed driver.
Insurance companies don’t cover unlicensed drivers.
He should not be allowed to just walk away.
The court should hold him responsible for something.

posted by: Marion on May 8, 2014  4:30pm

Police officers can’t win.  If they chase and catch, you criticize them, no matter what heroism they displayed.  If they just let them go and don’t chase them, whoever they injure hires an ambulance chaser to sue the cop for failing to take action, thus allowing the victim to get injured.  Which way do you want it?

posted by: Fr Jim on May 9, 2014  10:27pm

I would like to thank Officer Mike Criscuolo for not only his heroism but for being a community police officer in Fair Haven.

Those who are criticizing this officer, obviously do not know him like the folks in Fair Haven know him. When one speaks with him, one can feel that Officer Criscuolo has responded to this noble call of public service and safety. In his interactions with people, even with difficult people (Ive seen it), he is calm, professional, and carries well the authority we have invested in him as an officer of the law.

Criscuolo and his partner, Ofc. Santiago walked the beat in lower Fair Haven for the first years of service to New Haven. They walked the beat and we got to know them both. Two really fine young men. 

When we hear those sirens, especially at night, let’s give thanks to those brave women and men of our public safety services - and pray that they go home to their loved ones safe at the end of each shift.

Thank you Officer Criscuolo - you know this area when you saw this car run a red light. You know what happens out here when we are asleep in our homes, the prostitution, drug activity, and assaults against our neighbors. Thank you for standing watch, and special watch for you and your colleagues who stand between chaos and order.

When I meet young people in our community who are interested in law enforcement, Criscuolo, Santiago, and Lt. Johnson are the first people I want them to meet.

Officer Criscuolo, thank you for saying yes and living your oath.

posted by: LeeCruz on May 11, 2014  9:47pm

Nothing shows that community is alive and well in my neighborhood like the action of residents for the good of a neighbor. This power to do good was not given to us and we not have to taken it; we created it and its potential is boundless. Below is the beginning of a post on our neighborhood website by Voytec, one of the people directly impacted by the incident described in this article. To read the rest of this post, go to: 

“Why This Neighbor Of Yours, Who Lost Almost All His Stuff In The House Fire, Feels Richer Just Two Days Later?

Posted by CSNA Web Admin - Voytec Wacowski on May 9, 2014 at 10am
I don’t even know where to start.  And I don’t know what I will actually be able to convey in this text. There are so many facets of this story, and I am not a native English speaker, so writing is always a humbling experience for me, and I feel more humbled today than I ever was in my life. I am your neighbor, the one from the house that burned down just three nights ago, at 185 Front St.

I want to THANK YOU ALL for all the moral support, help, friendship and last but not least for every single penny that you donated to help me get back on my feet. I promise you that I will…”

If you would like to help the victims of this unfortunate incident, you can donate via paypal using the email address .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Residents of our neighborhood are also aware of and support a national effort to help Voytec. It was organized by a friend from Seattle and many friends from New Haven and around the country have donated. The link to that effort can be found on the blog post above.