Rock Hill officers talk about rescuing residents from burning apartment

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJuly 3, 2013 

— By the time Brent Bruggink arrived at the burning Oak Hollow apartments early Tuesday, flames were leaping from walls and windows, smoke engulfed the breezeway and a pregnant woman and little girl were trapped inside their home.

Bruggink, an officer with the Rock Hill Police Department for two years, has no training in fire rescue or firefighting.

He said it didn’t matter.

Within four minutes, Bruggink, 25, and Officers Tim Allen, 40, and Antoine Logan, 27, caught three residents who jumped from their second-floor bedroom windows to escape the flames. They also led four other people confused by smoke away from the burning building.

It was the officers’ first stint on the night-shift.

More than 25 firefighters used 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish the flames that, according to an updated Rock Hill Fire Department report, were confined to Building 862. The fire caused an estimated $600,000 in damage, the report states.

The first rescuers at the scene were the three Rock Hill police officers.

Larry VanderMolen, a Rock Hill police officer for less than two years, was surveying the northern end of town conducting property checks just after 3:30 a.m. He routinely listens to the fire and medical calls that come through his police radio.

Dispatchers called for fire engines. At the end of the transmission, a dispatcher relayed that people might be trapped in an “engulfed apartment complex,” he said.

“I put it out to the rest of the teams because I knew there would be guys down at the south end of their zones,” he said.

Bruggink had been patrolling Cherry Road and Constitution Boulevard when he heard VanderMolen’s call about the fire. He drove to Oak Hollow, at the intersection of Finley Road and South York Avenue in southern Rock Hill, and found a group of people standing outside “yelling frantically and running,” he said.

“I expected a fire, but not as bad as what I first saw,” he said.

He saw an inferno. The downstairs apartment units were “fully engulfed” in flames. It was the same for the upstairs units, where the flames were “coming out windows on the front and sides,” he said.

Desperately yelling outside was a man who told Bruggink that his family-- his seven-months-pregnant girlfriend, Mandi Coley, his 8-year-old niece and his 23-year-old sister-- were still inside the apartment.

Bruggink ran to the side of the building and saw the group shouting for help outside a bedroom window with “the smoke...coming off their apartment,” he said. “They were just screaming at the top of their lungs.”

They told him they could not get out their front door. Mandi Coley on Tuesday told The Herald that smoke began to fill her apartment and the temperature increased. Her boyfriend opened their front door and only saw black smoke.

With no other option, Bruggink told them to jump from the window: “That was the only way to do it,” he said.

They did.

The little girl was first, followed by the man’s sister. Bruggink, without a safety net, caught both of them in his arms.

Then Mandi Coley, who is expecting a baby girl in the next few months, jumped. Bruggink caught Coley as she fell, he said. Coley maintains that her boyfriend, not police, caught her and “broke my fall.”

The group ran from the burning apartment building, coughing and choking from smoke inhalation. Then, they went to the hospital.

“I was in shock,” Coley said on Tuesday. “I didn’t feel anything.”

But two other officers felt the heat.

“I heard Officer Bruggink over the radio and he said ‘there’s a fire and there are people inside,’” said Antoine Logan, a police officer for about two years. “That’s when I was speeding up.”

Officer Tim Allen was close by. Their blue lights flashing, Logan and Allen merged onto South York Avenue and pulled into the apartment complex, where neighbors crowded the parking lot, shrieking and crying.

“You could hear the kids screaming, so I ran towards the building to see if I could get them out,” said Allen, a seven-year Rock Hill police officer.

Logan joined him. With a flashlight in hand, Allen sprinted up the stairs in what Logan described as “total thick black smoke.” He found several “in front of their apartment door not moving.”

At the base of the stairs, Logan shined his flashlight and instructed neighbors to follow his voice as they hurried down the steps through smoke that burned eyes and filled lungs.

“That’s when two female adults and a juvenile came running down the stairs,” Logan said. “I told Tim to hurry up because I heard like cracking...the wood, or something was cracking.”

Allen, coughing, rushed down from the second floor. Then, the fire crews arrived. As firefighters battled the fire, police officers, including VanderMolen, knocked on doors to evacuate other neighbors. Fear never set in.

“You don’t think about that,” Bruggink said.

“You don’t have time to think about that,” VanderMolen added. “With something like that, you don’t have time to plan or anything like that. You make a decision and go with it.”

“That’s how it all started really,” Bruggink added, “because Officer VanderMolen was scanning the fire channel.”

The flames consumed an entire side of Building 862 at Oak Hollow. Firefighters spent much of Tuesday shoveling through charred valuables. Twenty-five people from nine families were displaced. Nineteen of them were adults and six were children. The American Red Cross assisted those families and provided them with temporary shelter.

Suyatta Johnson, who told reporters that the fire started when she dropped a cigarette after passing out from drinking alcohol, was questioned by police but soon released.

When they got off work 6 a.m. Tuesday, all four police officers returned to their spouses, showers and beds.

“I went home, told my wife and took a shower,” Allen said.

“I told my wife about it and she said, “WHAT???” Logan said. “I said you’d probably see it in the morning and I just went to sleep.”

Bruggink went to bed and later woke up to do homework. He’s a student at the American Military University.

“My wife didn’t find out about it until later that night,” VanderMolen said.

Wednesday morning, 8 o’clock, they were back to work.

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