The heroism of a humble officer
How the quick decision-making of one deputy and the aid of an uninvolved citizen saved the life of a man in a burning car
March 7th, 2022, started as an otherwise normal day for Benton County Sheriff’s Office Corporal JP Benitez.
After his recent promotion to corporal, he was training his replacement as the civil deputy. He had finished his morning assignments and decided to drive to the car wash to get his car looking great. The sky was blue, the spring air was warming up, and life was good.
Benitez has lived in the greater Tri-City area (Richland, Pasco and Kennewick in Washington State) for over 22 years. He is a husband, father, friend and local musician. He spends his free time helping friends with projects, engaging in family life, and playing music at local restaurants and venues. He also enjoys going to the gym and training in the art of Jiu-Jitsu. All these roles and experiences have shaped him into the man he is today. And the man that he is, was about to be put to the test.
A vehicle on fire
As he drove north on State Route 395, approaching Kennewick Avenue, he saw smoke in the air that was getting progressively darker in color. He recalls he did not hear any fire department sirens.
He stopped at a red traffic light and started scanning the area. He observed the source of the smoke: a vehicle on fire in a shopping center parking lot. The vehicle appeared to have collided into a parked truck with a camper on the bed.
Multiple people were standing around the vehicle with their smartphones in hand, recording the incident. He decided to drive to the fire to ensure the people maintained a safe distance until the fire department could arrive and extinguish the flames.
An unconscious male
As he arrived in the parking lot, he placed his patrol car in park and activated his body-worn camera. This otherwise normal call for service was about to take a major turn as he observed an unconscious male, slumped over in the driver’s seat of the car. There was no time to process the scene any further. The engine compartment of the car was engulfed with flames. Time was of the essence if he was going to get the driver out of the burning car.
Corporal Benitez’s bodycam footage, which was later uploaded to the Benton County Sheriff Office’s Facebook page, shows Benitez tell dispatch that the fire department needed to step up their response as the vehicle was occupied. With fire department sirens in the background, he quickly exited his patrol vehicle and approached the passenger side of the vehicle. He figured he could gain access to the driver and pull him out of the passenger door. As he approached the vehicle, there was a small explosion near the passenger side engine compartment.
Benitez reassessed his options and decided to make a driver’s side approach. He attempted to enter the rear driver’s side door, but it was locked. He moved up to the driver’s door. It was also locked. He reached through the open window, feeling the heat from the fire, and was able to unlock the driver’s door. All the while, he was attempting to rouse the driver by yelling to him. As Benitez opened the driver’s door and started to extract the driver, the flames from the engine compartment swept under the door and burned his hands.
Benitez jumped back from the flames and reassessed the scene. The flames recessed to the engine compartment. Although the fire department sirens were getting closer, it was clear that the vehicle’s passenger compartment could be engulfed in flames at any moment.
A citizen assists
He approached the driver’s door again in one last attempt to pull the driver to safety. As he reached back inside of the burning vehicle, he noticed that the driver’s hooded sweatshirt was made of thick material. In Jiu Jitsu training, martial artists often use the thick collar of the Gi to control their opponent. Benitez grabbed a hold of the thick hoodie and pulled the driver from the vehicle. An uninvolved citizen ran up to assist and the two men carried the driver a safe distance away from the burning car.
Kennewick Fire Department EMTs and paramedics took over, administered Narcan, and were able to bring the driver back to consciousness. The entire event from radioing dispatch to being relieved by the fire department took 61 seconds.
A humble officer
As I met with Corporal Benitez to listen to the story, he was adamant he was no hero. He pointed out that law enforcement officers across our country respond to similar scenes every day. He added that this was something he signed up for.
Benitez expressed his appreciation to the citizen who chose to put his life on the line to help him rescue the driver from the burning car: “We cannot do our jobs without a partnership with the community.” He continued that it is the remarkable support from the community, both in their words and their actions, which empowers officers and deputies to do their job every day.
He also told me of the aftermath of the scene. He experienced a significant adrenaline dump as he pulled the driver to safety and continued to feel the effects as his body processed the adrenaline a few hours later. He said it reminded him of other significant calls he had experienced over his career – one being a time he provided CPR to a young child who did not survive. He shared that these memories are one of the consequences of the job, one that he manages by talking with his wife, and through fitness and his faith.
A heroic officer
Following the incident, Corporal Benitez was inundated with encouragement, support and appreciation. His sheriff told him, “Good job.” Peers reached out with text messages. The local media and community members also expressed their gratitude.
I later spoke with Benton County Sheriff Tom Croskrey about Corporal Benitez’s split-second decision-making. Sheriff Croskrey was amazed by the heroic actions of both Benitez and the citizen pointing out, “Corporal Benitez was burned by the fire, stepped back, reassessed, and made the decision to move back in,” to save the driver’s life.
Sheriff Croskrey added that he is continually impressed by the Tri-City community for their remarkable support and compassion. Amid the calls in some parts of the country to defund the police, Sheriff Croskrey has experienced a very different sentiment from Tri-Citians. He pointed out that the Tri-Cities community are always willing to jump in – sometimes physically and other times with their pocketbooks to support the local community, but also the world community. The Benton County Sheriff’s Office recently started a fundraiser to support the Ukrainian National Police. The outpouring of support has been overwhelming.
Sheriff Croskrey told me that Corporal Benitez was adamant to him that he was just doing his job. Sheriff Croskrey feels differently. He believes that Corporal Benitez’s actions were heroic.
Both heroism and humility are the marks of great law enforcement officers and great people!