#BlueFriday: Clifton police save victims from burning vehicle
Often, being a police officer means dealing with unexpected, and life-threatening situations and then getting right back to work without missing a beat.
For three Clifton police officers — this week's honorees for #BlueFriday, host Bill Spadea's weekly effort to recognize cops who go above and beyond the call of duty — saving the lives of three civilians was just part of the job.
When officers Owen Curry, Jermaine Burgess and Frank Castro arrived at what they believed was a one-car accident on Kuller Road at about 3 a.m., the first thing they saw was fire engulfing a vehicle and nearby trees. Then came the terrified screams from victims they couldn't immediately see.
As each officer pulled up, they said, fear took a backseat and instinct kicked in. They immediately took off running toward the terrifying scene as the flames spread.
"There was so much fire, it looked like a house was on fire. You hear screaming and you don’t see anything," Burgess, a 43-year-old, four-year member of the department, recalled.
According to 26-year-old Curry — the first of the three officers to arrive — police were dispatched to a car fire in the area, but the exact location was unclear. As he approached, he said, he was flagged down about a quarter-mile up the road. As he got closer he saw that the vehicle had gone off the road and into a wooded area and in the process, knocked down nearby power lines. By that point, the car and trees were already engulfed in flames, Curry said.
"At that point, a passenger came stumbling out of the woods, bleeding from the head, and they were pointing at the tree yelling," Curry said.
He headed toward the wooded area, maneuvering carefully around the power lines, and saw a second passenger on the ground near the rear of the car, and pulled her away. That's when Burgess and Castro arrived and hurried to the burning vehicle.
The officers worked together to locate all of the victims and pull them to safety.
According to Sgt. Robert Bracken, there were four injured victims in the crash. One is still in St. Barnabas Hospital for treatment of severe burns. The other three were taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson will less severe injuries.
The driver was described as a 24-year-old Passaic man who was traveling with another 23-year old Passaic man in the front seat. Officers learned that the two backseat passengers were females, ages 19 and 20. The crash is still under investigation.
Despite the overwhelming flames and downed power lines, each officer told New Jersey 101.5 that fear and their own safety was as afterthought as they rushed toward the large flames.
"As I was running over there I was thinking 'I gotta go over there, I can't just stand here," Burgess said. "You didn't have time to be scared."
Curry, a U.S. Marine who had been deployed in Afghanistan, said there wasn't enough time to be afraid.
"Fear and any kind of emotion comes afterward," he said. "I had no sense of my own well-being."
According to Castro, nothing but helping the victims came to his mind when he pulled up.
"The safety of the victims was a priority. It never came to my mind that my safety came before before the," said Castro, a 34-year-old, three-year veteran of the Clifton PD.
The officers said that after the early morning crash, they cleared the scene and went back to work, handling traffic detail and patrol duties. Curry, who is the newest Clifton officer of the three, did the paperwork involved with the crash report.
Since the crash, Castro, Curry and Burgess have been praised by members of the community for their actions, but each man said the word "heroic" isn't one they easily associate with their rescue efforts.
Burgess said being labeled as a hero "still hasn’t really registered with me.”
According to Castro, an active U.S Marine reservist who has served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping and protecting people is what their job is all about.
“I didn’t take this job for the glory or to get the spotlight on me," Castro said. "I did my part to save people. This is what we signed up for.”
Last week's #BlueFriday honoree:
Know a great cop? Tweet @NJ1015 using the hashtag #BlueFriday or use the form below.
Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.