Rescuer Rescued

Paul Bass PhotoNew 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.”

Split-Second Decision

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.

WTNHFirefighters 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.

No Regrets

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)
Rose Dell
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
Derek Huelsman
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

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on March 18, 2016  5:03pm

Good luck and I hope you have no permanent lung damage.  Thanks for your service.

posted by: Hill Resident on March 21, 2016  8:07am

Hill Police officers (North & South) ROCK!!!! Thank you!!!

posted by: Flash4 on March 22, 2016  12:59pm

Awesome story, thank you for your service to the NH community. Great job !!!!!!!!!!!!!