WEST ORANGE – Running toward danger is part of the normal job duties for police officers.
But it was the last thing Windermere police officer Robbie Harrison and Ocoee police officer Brian Harris expected on the drive back to their hotel from class at the Institute of Police Technology and Management in Jacksonville.
As part of their goal to become certified Drug Recognition Experts for their respective agencies, the two officers had been attending classes at the institute when they stumbled upon a crash scene Friday, June 16, on Interstate 95.
The crash appeared to have occurred only moments before, Harris said. A box truck collided with an overpass support pillar. The two off-duty police officer immediately stopped and ran over to the scene to offer assistance.
Their assistance turned into a desperate seven- to nine-minute fight to save the lives of two occupants trapped inside before the smoke billowing out of the truck transformed into flames that could consume them alive. But their efforts were thwarted by the condition of the truck.
The front of the truck was so smashed in, they struggled to pry the doors open and extract the driver and passenger. Upon noticing a glow under the dashboard by the floor on the driver’s side, the two officers began asking civilians who had stopped for fire extinguishers, bottles of water and tools to help pry open the doors.
But the heat from the fire eventually killed the trapped passenger.
“The flames become very strong on the passenger side, and eventually the recovery efforts on the passenger side, you could tell, were no longer needed,” Harrison said after a pause. “It was probably the most horrific thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
The men then focused their efforts on the driver, who had managed to get himself halfway out of the vehicle, even though his legs were trapped by the smashed dashboard.
“At one point, the flames started to really get going, and it was hard just to stand next to him,” said Harris, who has served the Ocoee Police Department for 10 years.
Once the local fire department arrived, firefighters extinguished the flames and extracted the driver. The driver was airlifted to a hospital but later succumbed to his extensive injuries.
Although the efforts to save the men were unsuccessful, both officers and their peers know they both tried the best they could to save them. The traumatic incident and their show of bravery and altruism earned Harrison the Award of Valor — the highest award one could be given in the Windermere Police Department — and Harris was recognized by Windermere Police Chief David Ogden with the Chief’s Special Award.
During the upcoming Sept. 19 Ocoee City Commission meeting, the roles will be reversed, and Harris will receive the Award of Valor while Harrison will receive the Chief’s Special Award.
“We didn’t ask for any recognition because, in the end, we weren’t successful,” said Harrison, who has served the Windermere Police Department for nearly five years. “We did what we could, but the outcome was still the same, but after talking with some people, we realized we just did what we felt we had to do. And that’s we’ve signed up to do — we run toward the danger.”
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected]