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POLC Sergeants honored for lifesaving efforts

Posted by: Jennifer Gomori Posted date: November 21, 2017

Photos courtesy of Dave Millar, Photographic Impressions North
Royal Oak Sgt. Karly Wingart and Kalkaska Public Safety Sgt. Blake Huff were honored with 2017 LEEP Outstanding Service Awards.

— By Jennifer Gomori, POJ Editor, with excerpts from news media

A Royal Oak Police Sergeant and Kalkaska Public Safety Sergeant were recognized for bravery and dedication to their profession for putting their lives at risk entering a burning car and a burning home to rescue others.

The Sergeants were presented 2017 Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) Outstanding Service Awards Sept. 22, 2017 during the POLC/GELC Conference at Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City. They were among a group of officers nominated for the annual awards by their peers. “For them it’s just day-to-day. They just do their job the best they can. It’s not about the recognition,” said POLC/GELC Labor Rep. John Stidham, who nominated the Kalkaska Sergeant for the award.

Royal Oak Sgt. Karly Wingart was driving along Woodward Avenue just after midnight Jan. 15, 2017 when she saw smoke on the opposite side of the road. Her quick response made her the first emergency responder on the scene of a crash between a Ford Fusion and a SMART bus near 12 Mile Road.

She found a 36-year-old woman covered in blood inside the burning Fusion, her legs pinned under the dashboard where the impact occurred.

Although conscious, the victim wasn’t able to get out on her own and Wingart could not get the crushed passenger side door or window open. Worried about the woman burning or the car exploding, she ran to the driver’s side door, which was open. The driver had gotten out of the car and was lying in the road. Wingart told the woman she had to get out and reached inside the burning vehicle and pulled her to safety.

“I was mostly worried about her being burned. I can see the flames growing on the other side of the windshield,” Sgt. Wingart said. “The SMART bus driver had a little fire extinguisher. He did attempt to put it out and it didn’t work.”

With the help of a retired EMT standing nearby, Wingart was able to carry the passenger away from the burning car. “A Berkley Public Safety Officer, who arrived while I was trying to get her out, got his fire extinguisher. As I’m pulling her down the road, I can see the car is reigniting,” Sgt. Wingart said.

The Royal Oak Fire Department arrived and finished putting out the blaze. The driver, passenger and one bus rider with minor injuries were taken to Beaumont Hospital. While the driver and bus rider were treated and released, the Fusion passenger underwent reconstructive surgery and remained hospitalized until mid-February. The Fusion driver was later charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing serious injury.

“I am very proud, but not surprised with Sgt. Wingart’s quick thinking and bravery,” said Royal Oak Police Chief Corrigan O’Donohue in a statement. “With complete disregard for her own personal safety, she entered a burning vehicle to assist an injured passenger.”

The investigation found the driver rear-ended the bus, which had just dropped off passengers. Andrew Aman James, a 29-year-old Macomb Township resident, plead no contest to one count of operating while intoxicated causing serious injury. James, who has a prior conviction for operating while impaired, was sentenced to 90 days in jail. After 30 days successfully served, James will be put into a work release program, serving 24 months of probation with an electronic tether. He was also assessed fines, costs and restitution in excess of $4,000.

“We like to recognize our officers for the outstanding work that they do,” said Royal Oak Police Lt. Keith Spencer. “The biggest thing … is the sheer bravery that night.”

Kalkaska Public Safety Sgt. Blake Huff found himself in a similar situation, arriving before firefighters, at the scene of a house fire involving a woman trapped inside.

POLC/GELC Director Rob Figurski, right, congratulates Kalkaska Public Safety Sgt. Blake Huff on his award at the annual conference in September.

When Huff and Kalkaska County Deputy Ben Hawkins responded around 12:30 a.m. Feb. 22, 2017, they saw smoke and flames coming from the living room area of the home on Division Street in the Village of Kalkaska.

Grace Tester, the 63-year-old homeowner, had gotten outside on her own, according to 9 & 10 News online. However, she told the officers her paraplegic daughter-in-law, Mary Jo Tester, was still inside the living room. The officers decided they couldn’t wait for firefighters to arrive.

“I went in and started army crawling to her. Once I gained access to her, we started pulling her back out,” Sgt. Huff told 9&10 News online. “Then Deputy Hawkins grabbed a hold of my legs and helped guide me back out to the door we came in originally … due to the smoke and the flames.”
They rescued the 50-year-old woman, along with two dogs that were trapped inside.

“They’re heroes. They put their own lives on the line and went into a situation that was very dangerous,” Kalkaska Township Fire Chief Derek Hogerheide told 9 & 10 News.

All were transported to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City where Grace Tester and the officers were treated and released for smoke inhalation. But Mary Jo was flown to a Grand Rapids hospital to be treated for life-threatening injuries, including severe burns.

Unfortunately, despite their heroic efforts, Mary Jo Tester died Feb. 27 at the Grand Rapids hospital. Despite their tragic loss, her daughter, Danielle Bowen, wanted to let Sgt. Huff know how much she appreciated what they did for her mother. “I called Sergeant Huff and I thanked him personally for pulling my mom out,” Bowen told 9 & 10 News. “I cried, I actually really did because that just meant so much that they’re willing to go so far above and beyond what they are paid to do to help somebody in need.”

“I’m glad we could help and try to possibly save a life,” Huff told 9&10 News online. “We try to do our best to help prevent anything from happening like this and do the jobs we signed up to do.”

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