By Jeff Parrott South Bend Tribune
ST. JOSEPH, Ind. — St. Joseph County Police Cpl. Chris Boling was enjoying a banana for breakfast while patrolling Clay Township Saturday morning when he received a dispatch to help with a house explosion just a few blocks away.
Boling activated his lights and sirens and quickly arrived at 19500 Greenacre St., where he saw a detached garage on fire behind a home, and noticed a man and girl standing outside. Clay Fire units hadn’t yet arrived.
“I yelled and said, ‘Is anybody in there?’” Boling said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, he’s upstairs.’”
About five minutes before, around 7:50 a.m., homeowner David Ray had let his dogs out, let them back in, sat down in the living room to watch the news, and had his first sip of coffee before hearing a loud explosion out back.
Ray ran up to the apartment above the garage, where his friend of nearly 40 years, Michael Raines, 63, has been living for the past four months. Ray tried opening the door but couldn’t get it to budge, he said.
“I don’t know how the officer got in,” Ray said. “He did a good job.”
Boling ran up the wooden steps that serve the apartment. He could only make it about a foot inside because the fire and smoke were so intense. The heat hurt his skin as he called inside to Raines.
“I could see fire, just an orange glow in the back,” Boling said. “I yelled, ‘Where you at? Where you at?’ I started yelling, ‘Mike! Mike!’ and he responded. He was yelling, ‘Help!’ I asked him where he was. He said he didn’t know. He said, ‘In the middle of the floor.’ I’m like, ‘Crawl to me, crawl to me.’ He said, ‘I can’t.’ I said, ‘Why? Are you trapped?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Boling saw what looked like a wood frame at the doorway, so he assumed the ceiling had fallen in on Raines. He grabbed some loose wood from the floor, lifted the ceiling up and jammed in the wood, creating a makeshift lever to pry the ceiling section upward. He lifted it up enough to let Raines start crawling toward him.
“Smoke doubled,” Boling recalled. “Fire doubled, started coming at me. I’m yelling at him. He starts yelling that he couldn’t see out. I started using adult language. I told him to get his ass out of that building. He makes it to the doorway. He just kind of lays there. I reached in and as I’m pulling him out, the fire and smoke is shooting out the door at us. I was able to free him, pulled him on to the decking, down the stairwell and into the yard.”
Boling and Raines were taken to Memorial Hospital and treated for burns and smoke inhalation and released within a few hours.
Clay Firefighters, who issued a statement saying the explosion was heard a mile away, were able to extinguish the fire within 15 minutes of their arrival. Three firefighters suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
St. Joseph County Police Chief Bill Thompson said the department generally trains officers not to enter burning buildings in search of people trapped inside. For one thing, opening a door allows in the oxygen that can fuel the fire more.
“But he was told someone was in there and Chris could hear him crying for help,” Thompson said. “There was a time element, and sometimes you just have to go with your extinct. His instinct was to save someone and that’s what he did. The fire guys said if he had not done what he did, when he did it, there would have been a fatality. We’re really proud of him.”
Ray said he couldn’t think of anything in the garage that would have caused such a large explosion, which toppled part of the cinder block wall.
“I don’t know what caused it,” Ray said quietly, standing and staring at the burnt out garage Saturday evening. “I don’t really care, as long as he’s alright.”
Ray said Raines over the years has worked as a truck driver, machinist and welder, at employers that included South Bend Lathe. He was resting and unavailable for an interview Saturday evening, Ray said.
“He said he don’t remember anything,” Ray said. “He said he didn’t hear the explosion. He remembered calling my name out, and the next thing he knew he was in the hospital.”
He will let Raines move into the house with him now and help him find some clothes since all were lost in the fire.
Ray became emotional when a reporter asked him about Boling’s swift actions.
“He didn’t have to do that,” Ray said, pausing for several seconds before gathering himself. “Saved his life, I guess.”
It wasn’t Boling’s first time in a burning building. The 48-year-old had been a volunteer firefighter with Osceola’s fire department from the time he graduated from Penn High School in 1989 to 2011. He also has helped people escape fires several times during his 18 years as a cop.
Once during another fire in Clay Township, about 10 years ago, Boling said he was able to get inside the house and heard a woman downstairs, but the fire and smoke was too intense for him to descend a stairwell. The woman died in the fire, he said.
That memory flashed through his mind Saturday as he tried to rescue Raines, he said. When told later by a reporter how grateful Ray was, Boling said he appreciated it.
“Yeah well,” he said, “I just did what I thought I had to do. I did tell him he wasn’t going to die on me.”