Two officers honored for lifesaving heroism

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By The Staff

TELL CITY - Two police officers, volunteer firemen, a paramedic and a city dispatcher were praised Monday for efforts that saved the life of a Tell City woman trapped earlier this month inside a burning home.

Tell City Patrolman Bryce Hammack and Sheriff's Deputy Lee Chestnut received lifesaving medals during meetings of the Tell City Board of Public Works and Safety and board of county commissioners. Newly sworn-in Police Chief Greg Hendershot presented Hammack with his medal and a smaller red and white pin he will wear on his uniform. Sheriff Bob Glenn presented an identical medal to Chestnut the same evening.

Shortly after 2 a.m. April 3, Hammack and others responded to a fire at 1034 12th St. and learned from a dispatcher that a woman was trapped inside. Two people had already made it out of the home, Hendershot said Monday while reading a letter of commendation for Hammack, but Debbie Howell, whose living area was in the home's basement, was trapped by flames.

Hammack found another resident of the home, Shane Burst, hanging out of a window. Burst had tried to reach Howell but was repelled by heat and smoke. Hammack ordered Burst from the home but the man was reluctant to leave Howell inside. Hammack physically removed the man and then entered the home himself twice, without any protective gear. He, too, was unable to reach Howell.

Dispatcher Kathy James, communicating by telephone with Howell, told the woman to search for a basement window. Howell was able to comply and broke the window.

With James' help, Hammack was able to find the window and pull Howell partly up through the opening so she could breathe fresh air.

Hammack held onto Howell and was then assisted by Chestnut and firefighters Chris Axton and Brett Birchler. A portion of the window framing was removed by Perry County paramedic John Gebhard, allowing Howell to be pulled to safety.

"Officer Hammack's fast thinking no doubt saved Debbie Howell's life. Officer Hammack showed courage, persistence and teamwork. He entered a burning home with little regard for his own safety because he was trying to save the life of another," Hendershot said.

James, who was working alone that morning, was honored for communicating calmly with Howell and directing Hammack and other officers and firefighters to her location near the basement window.

Also commending her actions was Tell City Fire Chief Greg Linne.

"Kathy calmly spoke to the caller and advised her of what actions to take to stay safe until help could arrive," Linne reported in his own letter of recognition.

Glenn read the citation to the commissioners and audience members, explaining Chestnut's role in helping Hammack and others. Hammack and Chestnut "worked together, holding on to Debbie to prevent her from falling back into the burning house and holding her head in such a manner that she could breathe fresh air while paramedic John Gebhard used equipment to remove window framing that was preventing her escape," Glenn read.

A deputy in the county treasurer's office, Howell underwent treatment for smoke inhalation at University of Louisville Hospital, but visited the courthouse earlier Monday.

"Debbie is out," County Auditor Connie Berger said. "She did come into the courthouse today to see everybody. The doctors are encouraging her to get out and walk, because that helps her lungs, helps her to breathe."

"Thank you guys so much," Chestnut said in response to the presentation. "It's not why we're out here. You don't think about things like this, you just go out and do your job. Something like this means a lot."

Hammack received a standing ovation as Hendershot presented the medal and as Hammack's wife, Chris, pinned it to his uniform. Most of the city's other police officers were in attendance.

Hammack did not speak but has told Mayor Barbara Ewing that he felt he was simply doing his job.

Linne presented letters of recognition to Hammack, Chestnut, Axton, Birchler, Gebhard and James.

"The actions of all involved that morning resulted in one goal, the saving of a person's life," Linne said.