Being in the right place at the right time--and doing the right thing--meant a smoky rescue and the highest award given by the MIT Police to one of its own.
Patrol Officer David O'Connor was off duty and driving in his car with his six-year-old daughter Mary in Norfolk, Mass., on Jan. 23 when he noticed a glow in the sky up ahead. "I turned to Mary and said, 'That's too big to be a bonfire,'" he recalled. When he got closer, he saw that a small store with two attached greenhouses was on fire.
O'Connor used his cell phone to call state police, who told him that local police were on their way. It looked like he had done all he could--until two teenage boys ran up and said their grandmother was inside the burning building.
O'Connor left Mary with the two boys--"I made it firm to them to stay with my daughter," he said--and he ran into the store, but was driven back by heavy smoke. He tried the back entrance but was also unsuccessful. He asked the boys for more information, and they told him their grandmother was in a house behind the store. By this time, that house, which was only about four feet away from the store, was also on fire.
"She came to the door and was reluctant to leave," O'Connor said. But he convinced the woman, who was in her 80s and used a cane, and helped her out of the building unhurt.
The fire moved quickly, aided by wind and the shop's wares of fresh and dried flowers. "The store was a tinderbox," O'Connor said. The flames were extinguished by local volunteer firefighters who arrived quickly.
"It was a pretty significant fire," said Peter Petruchik, acting chief of the Norfolk Fire Department. "He did a great job and we really appreciate him helping out."
While O'Connor was worried about the woman inside the building, he was just as worried about the safety of leaving his young daughter with two strangers while performing the rescue, as well as her own possible fears. But she was mostly unfazed. "Mary asked me [afterwards] why I kept yelling at the kids," he said, referring to his emphatic orders to watch the little girl. "She was the real brave one there."
For his own bravery, O'Connor, who has been on the MIT force for a year and a half, will receive the department's Medal of Valor, its highest award. Lt. Daniel Costa recommended the honor in a letter to Police Chief John DiFava.
"That's an amazing honor," O'Connor said. "I don't know if I'm worthy of it, but Lt. Costa seems to think I am."
He paid tribute to his fellow officers and their work that often doesn't receive this kind of attention. "This is a great department. I've worked for three police departments, and this is the best by far," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 2004.