Take the following test: You are the first person to come across a burning home but you have no equipment to deal with the fire or the smoke. Even though you have radioed in for help, you know that it will take several minutes for the fire department to arrive which would be too late if somebody is trapped inside.
Quick, you have to think fast. What do you do?
“Instinct takes over,” explained Maplewood Police Officer Tommy Kong on why he chose to enter a burning home while on duty. “I had to make sure everybody was out of the house. That’s the only thing that crossed my mind.”
It was his quick action that saved the life of the man who resided at that home, noted Chief of Police David Thomalla as he handed a Letter of Commendation to Officer Kong amidst a standing ovation during a city council meeting April 23.
While on his usual shift on the afternoon of March 23, Officer Kong came across a burning home located near Beaver Lake on the border of St. Paul and Maplewood.
Along with fellow Officer Bill Sypniewski, who arrived nearly at the same time, Officer Kong noticed a man at the back of the burning building acting strangely as he would enter the home and quickly exit only to repeat the same action several times.
Not sure why the man was acting so strangely, the two police officers were able to eventually apprehend the man and place him safely in the back of a squad car.
It was at this point when the critical decision had to be made as the officers were still unsure as to who might still be inside the home.
“I just held my breath and entered the home,” Officer Kong recalled of his attempt to locate anybody who might be trapped inside. “The smoke was so thick I could barely see in front of me. Breathing was impossible.”
Making it to the basement, the officers were unable to locate any other person. The second floor was already in heavy flames, so they never even attempted to go upstairs.
Though Officer Kong sustained no injuries, Officer Sypniewski’s shirt caught on fire at the arm area, inflicting minor burns. Still, it was Officer Sypniewski who wanted to continue searching inside the home for possible survivors.
At the advice of Officer Kong, however, the two wisely waited for the fire engines to arrive.
“From the second we got out of our squad cars, we just reacted,” explained Officer Sypniewski, who received a Life Saving Award for his efforts.
It turned out, according to Officer Kong, that the man they had saved was eventually diagnosed as suicidal and could possibly have been responsible for the fire.
“Though the investigation is still going on, it is possible the man was acting so strangely because he was contemplating suicide on that day.”
A six-year veteran of the force, Officer Kong had received a prior Letter of Commendation for a similar incident one year prior in which he risked his life to enter another burning building.
Asked what his wife thinks of his heroics, Officer Kong chuckled, “I try not to bring my work home so that she doesn’t worry about what I do.”