Saving lives in a house fire

Once while working the graveyard shift for the Highway Patrol, my partner and I were patrolling in the cold when he had to use the restroom.

We stopped at a gas station, used the facilities and left. As we were about to enter the freeway, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a bunch of smoke coming from the gas station. We returned there and realized the station was fine, but the two-story house behind it was on fire. We ran up to the house and noticed a sliding glass door was open and smoke was coming out.

We ran into the house even though there was so much smoke from a foot off the floor to to the ceiling. We were looking for anyone inside when a young woman came out of an upstairs room. We asked her if anyone else was in the house. She told us that she was alone, but there were people who lived downstairs.

We walked around the house to another sliding glass door. As we approached it, we could hear two distinct voices. One sounded like a young child and one was an infant. They were coughing and crying. We opened the sliding glass door but couldn’t see anything through the thick smoke. I yelled for them to come to my voice. I just entered and started sweeping with my hand to see if I could find them. I felt a bed in the room, and then I felt a girl’s foot and leg; but I couldn’t breathe anymore so I had to leave the room for air.

My partner and I went back in and we were able to grab the girl. I could hear the infant crying in the room as well. We took the little girl out of the house. I went back in. I thought the other child was on the same bed, so I kept sweeping the bed with my hands, but I could not find the child. All of a sudden, a bunch of windows blew out from the heat, causing the fire to ignite even further. The extreme heat and flames became so intense that the roof started to collapse, which forced us out of the house. We could not get back into it.

When the fire department got there, the house was a complete loss. My partner and I were transported to the hospital for smoke inhalation. I was upset that there were no adults in the house with those children. The girl from the upstairs apartment told us there were two sisters who lived together and they worked at night.

I found out later that the two sisters left their children with a 16-year-old son at night while they worked. He was actually home that night, but the electrical fire started in the wall of his room while he was asleep and he died of smoke inhalation. We also found out that there was a crib right next to the bed where we found the child, and the infant’s body was found in that crib — we just couldn’t find her. It made it even harder for me to take, because at that time I had a newborn at home.

We later found out that businessmen from another country bought the gas station and apartments and wanted to turn the whole area into a truck stop, but they were having financial issues. The apartments were condemned, but they were illegally renting the apartments for extra money. The two mothers sued them and received a very high money award, but the businessmen returned to their country without ever paying the women.

The author, Brian Smith, served four years in the United States Marine Corps, and retired as an Assistant Chief with the California Highway Patrol. He resides in Bakersfield, California. If you have a personal “Cop Tale” to share, please contact Brian at

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