The gift of goodbye: Craig Police Department officers awarded for heroic actions during February fire
“They gave me something that is so precious, and that’s the chance to say goodbye. There’s nothing that I could say … that would measure up to what they did.”
—Kitty Warrington, daughter of Patrick Hunter
When Craig Police Department officer Mike Edwards knocked on the door of a burning house on the night of Feb. 7, he didn’t expect anyone to answer.
“People were saying, ‘There’s nobody in there,’ but for some reason, with a car parked in the driveway, I didn’t know if there was anybody in the house,” said Edwards, a 10-year police veteran.
“I went up and knocked on the door and a guy from the inside said, ‘Come on in.’”
The man inside the house, 75-year-old Patrick Hunter, was trying to escape from a fire that was engulfing his home at 1912 Woodlawn, a fire that claimed the life of his ex-wife and live-in companion, Ursula Hunter.
Believing he saw Patrick's hand near the door, Edwards quickly conferred with Officer Lance Eldridge and Sergeant Corey Wagner, both of whom arrived on the scene seconds after him, before entering the burning building and pulling Patrick to the doorway.
The other two officers then moved him outside where he could receive medical attention. He was taken to The Memorial Hospital, where he died three days later. In recognition of their bravery, the three law enforcement officers were named Officers of the Year on Friday by the Colorado Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Given annually, winners of the award are chosen from nominations submitted from all over Colorado.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said. “They made a decision to try to save someone. I would hope I would have had the same courage to make that decision.
“They went way above and beyond what the normal expectation would be. But knowing all of them, that does not surprise me.”
While the recognition is humbling, Eldridge, who has been a member of the Craig Police Department for 3 1/2 years, said it is also bittersweet.
“When police officers receive recognition, we forget that it’s often times at someone else’s expense,” he said. “I think it’s more important that we remember the family that lost somebody they love than anything else.”
Wagner and Edwards echoed that sentiment. “I wish the outcome could have been different,” said Wagner, a 20-year member of the department.
“I really feel for the family.”
“It’s really nice to be recognized for what we do, but it’s unfortunate … that something bad has to happen in order for officers to get recognized,” Edwards added.
Though losing their father was painful, Patrick's daughter said she doesn’t think it tarnishes the courage the three officers displayed by risking their own lives to try and save someone else.
“I can’t thank them enough,” said Warrington, 53, a resident of Mira Loma, Calif. “It means the world to me.”
Despite the outcome, Warrington said many positive things resulted from her father being pulled from the fire, most notably that it allowed Warrington and her son, whose middle name is Patrick after his grandfather, to spend time with him when he was in the hospital.
Although he couldn’t talk, she said he was responsive and was even sitting up at one point.
When it became apparent that Patrick, who had survived two bouts of inoperable lung cancer, wouldn’t be able to recover from smoke inhalation incurred during the fire, Warrington said she and her brother, Hayden resident Sean Hunter, were able to give their father a respectful final farewell and make his last hours as comfortable as possible.
“They gave me something that is so precious, and that’s the chance to say goodbye,” she said, choking back tears. “There’s nothing that I could say … that would measure up to what they did.”
Her brother agreed.
He said just entering a burning building “takes a different breed.”
“I think they’re definitely worthy of the award,” said Sean, 41. “They did everything they could do. I know they’re trained to not go into a house that’s on fire, and I appreciate the fact that they did.
“I don’t know a lot of people who would have done what they did.”
While officers are told not to go into burning buildings, Edwards said this was a “fluke” situation in which circumstances allowed for more officer discretion than usual.
“The guy happened to answer, we happened to see him, we happened to get there right at the right time,” he said. “The circumstances were just right. Had one of those things not been present, we wouldn’t have gone in the house.”
Eldridge said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn’t change anything about the decisions he and the other two officers made.
“I certainly have complete trust in both of the other two officers,” he said. “I had no doubt that the right decision would be made.”
Wagner concurred, adding that although receiving the award is an honor, he’s not sure it’s one he deserves.
“Mike is the real (hero) in this,” he said. “He’s the one who went in, disappeared into the smoke. He showed that he’s willing to risk his life for somebody else.”
Edwards said he knows if circumstances had been different either of the other two officers would have done exactly what he did.
“Had (Eldridge or Wagner) seen (Hunter) in there, there wouldn’t have been any question about going in (to the house),” he said. “They just never saw him when the smoke cleared a little bit.”
Vanatta, too, thinks the award is an acknowledgment of the actions of all three officers involved as well as of the values displayed by the department as a whole.
“I think (the award) recognizes the courage and efforts of these particular officers,” he said. “But I also believe they are a reflection of all the officers we have that are all very dedicated, compassionate and courageous and are always trying to do the right thing.”
“It’s not just the three of us,” he said. “Any officer, had they been in the same situation that we were in, any of us would have done the same thing.”