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HILLSVILLE — Usually it's the firefighters that first rush into a burning building to pull the occupants out, but in the early morning of Jan. 9 at Briarleigh Court, three law enforcement officers braved the smoke and the flames.
None of the 37 residents at the independent living complex in Hillsville succumbed to the fire, due in large part to the actions of Virginia State Police Trooper Matthew Cochran, Carroll Deputy Bobby Lyons and Hillsville Officer Ricky Hayes.
Their acts have brought praise from around the Twin Counties and around the state.
At the Hillsville Town Council meeting last Monday, Police Chief Steve Williams presented the three officers with medals of valor for what they did.
Their quick response averted what could have become a terrible situation, Williams said after the meeting. The aftermath of the fire would have been much worse.
They went to the scene without anyone telling them to, and they risked their own safety out of concern for the residents inside.
Knowing them all, what they decided didn't surprise Williams. "I think it says a lot about them individually, that they'd be willing to put their lives on the line to help others get out."
Conditions were especially challenging that winter morning, he recalled. They could get the residents away from the fire, but then had to consider the possibility of hypothermia for them setting in that night, as temperatures had dropped to about 9 degrees.
Additionally, Trooper Cochran will receive the Virginia State Police Superintendent's Award of Honor later this month, as recommended by First Sgt. Mike Musser.
Musser has also submitted the officers for recognition from other organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Hopefully, they can be recognized on the state and national level for their actions."
He also noted the initiative that the officers showed. "Without their efforts, it's virtually certain that people would have lost their lives."
Lyons and Hayes also received recognitions from the Virginia State Police during last Friday's Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Grover King Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1115, presented by Capt. Steve Childress from the district headquarters in Wytheville.
The captain read from the report that the first emergency call alerting authorities of the fire came from a resident at Briarleigh Court, who told a dispatcher that smoke was seeping into her room under her door.
A second call came from an emergency responder, who reported visible flames coming through the roof at the assisted living facility, Childress read. Upon arriving, Cochran, Lyons and Hayes immediately went to the apartment that was on fire.
"Officers began beating on doors to each of the housing units, alerting the elderly occupants and removing them to the outside and down a walkway to safety," Childress read.
The officers also located the fire's origin, where it had already burned into the attic and through the roof.
"The smoke was so heavy in the area of the fire that the officers had to crawl through the smoke and flames to locate several of the occupants," the captain read. The officers "had to make multiple attempts to crawl through the thick smoke and flames before locating" a resident inside.
"During the search efforts... oxygen tanks from the residents were exploding all around them," Childress said. "Within seconds of the removal of the last victim, the roof area of two of the apartments collapsed. When firefighters arrived, they had to wear breathing apparatus to traverse the same areas that the officers had braved while being unprotected."
Without the actions of the officers, occupants of the facility would have lost their lives in the smoke and flames, Childress concluded.