New Haven cop Steve McMorris once climbed a pole and rescued three people trapped in a fire. This week he was the one needing help escaping deadly flames and smoke.
Fellow Hill South patrolman Keron Bryce — who has a life-saving rescue under his belt as well — was there ready with a hand to safety.
Their encounter with a fast-growing fire occurred early Monday on Howard Avenue.
Both officers were working their usual overnight C squad shifts in the Hill South neighborhood.
At 4 a.m., McMorris, who’s in his 11th year on the Hill South beat and 14th on the force, was parked in his cruiser outside the Howard Avenue substation filing a report on his computer about a domestic incident. He saw smoke blowing across the street.
Not a lot of smoke. Enough to catch his attention. He drove around to look for more smoke, but didn’t see any. He figured it might be a plume blowing from the tracks and train yard below.
Returning to the substation, he resumed writing the report.
“Ten minutes later, I looked up,” he recalled. “Now there was a lot of smoke. I had the window open. I could smell it. I’m thinking, ‘Something’s on fire in the area.’”
McMorris drove his cruiser across the street, narrowed down the location of the smoke to an area behind a cluster of houses, then to a two-family home at 425-7 Howard. He walked to the porch and peered through the windows. He saw a light flickering on the second floor, wasn’t sure if flames were the source. He called in to the dispatcher a report of a possible fire.
Officer Bryce, who’s in his fourth year on the force, was parked at the time at the Mobil station on Sargent Drive, filling out a report of his own on a minor car accident. He’d worked 17 hours straight, through 5 p.m. that Sunday, because of an overtime shift at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He’d slept two hours, then reported for his regular midnight shift.
Bryce heard McMorris’s call to the dispatcher. It sounded serious enough to stop his work, flash on his overhead lights, and hurry to the scene.
He arrived on Howard to find McMorris banging on the house’s two front doors, hoping to wake someone up. No response.
“Kick in the door!” a woman across the street called to him. “Somebody might be inside.”
After some more banging, McMorris followed her advice.
“I’ll be honest with you,” McMorris said later. “I can’t be one of those guys who can brag about how many doors I’ve kicked in.” In fact, he’d never kicked one in before.
He aimed for a spot near the knob on the wooden door to the first floor. He figured it would take a couple of tries. The first kick worked. The door swung open.
“The smoke and the heat hit me in the face,” McMorris said. Then the door swung back toward him; it couldn’t stay open on its own. So McMorris reached for the door — which had grown so hot from the fire that it scalded his hand.
He yelled for Bryce to come hold the door open so he could run in to “see if anyone is in there.”
McMorris had just seconds to weigh the wisdom of running in. He remembered a fire he’d seen on Amistad Street the year before last. The flames moved so fast then, leaping from the first floor to the roof in the few minutes it took firefighters to arrive. “I’ve seen what fires can do,” he said.
And he’s seen what a first responder can do, to save lives. McMorris saved three lives one day back in November 2005, when he’d noticed smoke rising form the Three Judges Motel while patrolling the upper Whalley area one day around 6 a.m. He ended up climbing a 12-foot pole to shepherd to safety three adults trapped on the second floor.
He had no idea if anyone was trapped inside 425-7 Howard early this past Monday morning. He didn’t want to take any chances.
“If there was somebody inside, I couldn’t live with myself if I waited for the fire department,” McMorris said.
He peered into a front hallway filled with smoke except for a channel maybe a foot or two from the ground. He fell to his knees and started crawling through.
He passed a door to a room on his right.
“New Haven police! Is anybody here? Anybody in the house?” he called.
No answer. He kept crawling, into thick smoke. He got halfway to another door. He called out again. Again, no answer.
At this point, “it was nothing but orange fire” around him. “I stopped. I could hear crackling over me” and all around. He wondered if a ceiling or a wall would fall on him.
“I was like: ‘All right. I’ve got to try to get out.’”
He turned around, started crawling.
From outside, Bryce, who was now standing with another patrol officer, Jeff King, could hear McMorris coughing.
McMorris was having increasing trouble breathing. He felt like vomiting.
It was getting harder to move. He got closer to the doorway, reached out his arm.
Bryce reached in and grabbed him. He and King got a good grip and started pulling.
They dragged McMorris out to safety on the porch, where McMorris doubled over, struggling to breathe, still feeling like vomiting.
Firefighters had arrived. They got to work. The house was in flames. The firefighters spent 20 minutes putting out what had become a two-alarm blaze. During “mop-up,” said Assistant Fire Chief Matt Marcarelli, firefighter Jeffrey O’Neill was injured when glass got into his eye; he’s OK now. (The cause of the fire remains under investigation.)
The house turned out to have been empty. There had been no one inside to save.
An ambulance crew gave McMorris oxygen and a blood pressure check. He was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where a doctor examined him.
McMorris couldn’t stop coughing. The doctor explained about the chemicals in the smoke that had invaded his lungs. He released McMorris and told him to go home and rest.
The next morning, when McMorris woke up, “my lungs were tight.” He could take only half-breaths.
At 8:17 a.m., McMorris got a text message from Bryce.
“How you feelin brotha? Home resting?” Bryce wrote.
“Yeah.. Home now. Thanks for helping me out. ... Have a persistent cough and headache but otherwise OK.”
Bryce remembered a more dramatic rescue, which took place a year ago. He and partner Osvaldo Garcia broke a window of an SUV that had been in a multi-vehicle crash and caught fire. They extracted the driver, who had been unconscious and strapped in his seat belt. They’d saved his life.
It was most the most rewarding moment of Bryce’s career. Just as McMorris will never forget the satisfaction he felt saving the lives of the three adults in the 2005 fire.
“This is why I chose this career,” McMorris said. “It’s about helping even one person — that’s what really counts.
“Especially in the time we’re living in now, there’s a lot of hatred for police officers. There are a lot of police officers who would put their lives in jeopardy for people they don’t even know.” The public, McMorris said, should know that about cops.
After waking up short of breath Monday, McMorris went again to see a doctor, who told him he needed to stay out of work for a few days to recover. Besides his labored breathing, he had some swelling of his throat. And his hand had been slightly burned.
Cops are not trained to run into burning buildings; unlike firefighters, they don’t carry special equipment to help them breathe though smoke. McMorris acknowledged that in that split-second decision-making at the front door, he didn’t think about that. He was thinking about saving lives.
“I’ve seen many officers who have their human compassion instincts take over and put them at risk, even if this might have been their training,” said Police Chief Dean Esserman, who praised McMorris’s courage and commitment to his job.
Esserman called on McMorris Monday to check in on him.
Esserman asked him if he would run into a house in that situation again.
“I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t done anything and they found somebody in the house,” McMorris responded.
“You’re a hero,” Esserman told him.
“It’s just part of doing my job,” McMorris responded.
McMorris returns to that job this Sunday at 11 p.m. for his overnight shift. He intends to keep giving it his all.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
• Joseph Aurora
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Pat Bengston & Mike Valente
• Elsa Berrios
• Manmeet Bhagtana (Colon)
• Paul Bicki
• Paul Bicki (2)
• Sheree Biros
• Scott Branfuhr
• Bridget Brosnahan
• Keron Bryce and Osvaldo Garcia
• Keron Bryce and Osvaldo Garcia (2)
• Dennis Burgh
• Anthony Campbell
• Darryl Cargill & Matt Wynne
• Elizabeth Chomka & Becky Fowler
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao
• Carlos Conceicao (2)
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Mike Criscuolo
• Steve Cunningham and Timothy Janus
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Milton DeJesus (2)
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Jeremie Elliott (2)
• Jose Escobar Sr.
• Bertram Ettienne
• Bertram Ettienne (2)
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• Michael Fumiatti
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
• Tom Glynn & Matt Williams
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Patricia Helliger
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
• Jillian Knox
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Dana Martin
• Reggie McGlotten
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Monique Moore and David Santiago
• Matt Myers
• Carlos and Tiffany Ortiz
• Chris Perrone
• Joseph Perrotti
• Ron Perry
• Joe Pettola
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Ryan Przybylski
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Salvador Rodriguez (2)
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Betsy Segui & Manmeet Colon
• Allen Smith
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• David Totino
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
* Elisa Tuozzoli
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• Dave Vega & Rafael Ramirez
• Earl Reed
• Daophet Sangxayarath & Jessee Buccaro
• Jess Stone
• Arpad Tolnay
• John Velleca
• Manuella Vensel
• Holly Wasilewski
• Holly Wasilewski (2)
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Elizabeth White & Allyn Wright
• Matt Williams
• Michael Wuchek
• Michael Wuchek (2)
• David Zannelli
• Cailtin Zerella
• Caitlin Zerella (2)
• Caitlin Zerella, Derek Huelsman, David Diaz, Derek Werner, Nicholas Katz, and Paul Mandel
• David Zaweski