Black Forest Fire

Jul 26, 2013 10:27 AM by Maddie Garrett

Unsung Heroes of the Black Forest Fire, Part 1

A new perspective is coming to light on the first hours of the Black Forest fire, from police officers who were some of the first responders to get there the day the fire broke out. They may not be trained to fight fires, but they're trained to save lives. That's just what they did as the officers faced the flames head on.

"As we drove up the interstate we could see that black plume of smoke," said Marcus Van Ooyen, Tactical Officer with the Colorado Springs Police SWAT Team. "You could just tell it was raging out of control."

Van Ooyen and the rest of the Colorado Springs SWAT Team said they didn't wait for a call or command to tell them they needed to head to Black Forest. The billowing smoke plume in the air was all they had to see to know they were needed.

"The trees were just silhouetted by the fire, these black poles, that orange glow and the acrid smoke that was starting to envelop you. You could feel that heat coming toward you," described Tactical Officer Andrew Leeper, CSPD SWAT.

As the fire raged on, police officers went door-to-door to get people out.

"We'd pull up to a house, we'd run up the driveway to knock on the door and by the time we got back to the car the trees and stuff were already on fire," said SWAT Officer Nate Gabrielson.

Van Ooyen explained that they used their training to stay focused and evacuate people effectively.

"A fire's no different, we'll go in there, our whole goal is to save people," said Van Ooyen.

While firefighters were battling the blaze and protecting homes, police officers stuck to their goal of saving lives. One officer even carried an elderly woman down her stairs and out of the house as the fire closed in on her property.

"There are instances like that when we are physically helping people evacuate their houses," said Van Ooyen.

Not only did the officers rely on their training, but they went with their gut when it came to close calls. One of those times was when they found out a man was trapped at his house, but the fire had jumped the road and surrounded both sides.

"You couldn't really see the road, it was dark, the smoke was that thick and we just kind of made a decision that all of the law enforcement there would kind of go together," explained Leeper.

They made it through and were able to escort the man out of the area. The officers said, they didn't think twice about the decision.

"That's just what we signed on to do, so we're going to make that decision every time," said Leeper.

Van Ooyen added,"If we don't do it then who will?"

It wasn't just people they were saving

"We had officers rescuing horses, Nate here saved a donkey," SWAT Officer Brian Frahm said.

Gabrielson smiled, saying, "I learned that you don't play tug of war with a donkey cause he wasn't moving... I finally yelled to Frahm, I asked him how I get a donkey to move because he knows a little bit more about animals than I do, and he says you have to talk to it. And I thought he was joking. But finally I said, come here donkey and he started walking."

Despite so many victories and positive outcomes, the losses still haunt them. Worst of all, the loss of two lives.

"As soon as a I found out kind of the location where that couple was I automatically went to look to see where I possibly could have been at the time, was there something I could have done? Maybe, I don't know. I was maybe a street away from that house," said Leeper.

Van Ooyen said all they can do is try and learn from the experience and hopefully prevent something like that from happening again. They also look for the positive things to come out of the tragic fire.

"It's really good to see that in these situations, how willing the other citizens are to help each other and neighbors helping each other get out. You can really see the good in humanity come out in that, and that's really encouraging to see it's good to see," said Van Ooyen.

Police officers weren't the only law enforcement first on scene of the Black Forest Fire, Sheriff's Deputies rushed to the fire as well. From digging trenches, to nearly getting caught in the fire. You can hear some of their heroic stories on News 5 next week.



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