Flames were shooting from the building, thick black smoke filled the air, and people trapped inside were screaming for help when police officers from Nassau’s Fifth Precinct arrived at the fire in West Hempstead, officials said Monday.
Wearing just their uniforms — no protective gear or masks — the five officers commandeered a ladder and rescued six people, including two children from the blaze Friday, which began shortly after 10:40 a.m., officials said.
Three of the five officers — Luis Ascencio, James Schuerlein and Evan Marro — described their actions, which were captured in part on video, at Police Benevolent Association headquarters in Mineola on Monday.
“There was no visibility,” said Ascencio, a 10-year Nassau cop. “The smoke was so thick and black, you could barely see the people on the second floor. Pretty much all you heard was people screaming for help.”
The fire on Hempstead Turnpike began in the basement, police said. A 40-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman — who Ascensio and Schuerlein helped rescue — were taken by ambulance to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, police said.
Firefighters from the West Hempstead Fire Department, along with three other departments, assisted at the scene, extinguishing the fire, police said. Hempstead police also assisted at the scene, police said.
The fire began in the building’s basement, but does not appear suspicious, police said.
James Carver, president of the PBA, said the all of the officers’ supervisors had put them in for departmental medals and awards in recognition of their “heroic” actions.
“These are police officers going up a ladder — they don’t have any gear on them, no protection from the smoke — going up this ladder, risking their own life to help other people,” Carver said.
Ascensio was first on the scene and helped a man and a woman escape the blaze by climbing a ladder in the front of the building.
Schuerlein said of the 40-year-old man he and his partner, Peter Duvenhorst, an 18-year officer, helped rescue:
“The second victim, he was aspirating,” said Schuerlein, who has been on the force for 13 years. “He couldn’t breathe. He had black soot just pouring out of his nose.”
Ascensio used the police radio to call for help, prompting Marro and his partner — Jason Dennington — who had been at Belmont Racetrack to arrive, and they saved a husband, wife and two children from the building’s roof.
The father told Marro he worked the overnight shift and was sleeping when his wife roused him.
“His wife woke him up in a panic because she heard the alarms and everything,” Marro said. “They explained that they opened the door to go out into the hallway and they could not see anything. So they closed the door and found the secondary way of getting out of the building, which was through the window out on the roof.”
Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said in a statement: “This is just another example of the heroic work done by Nassau County Police Officers day in and day out. These officers went above and beyond the call of duty to save multiple lives from the fire in the apartment complex. . . . These Police Officers put the lives of our residents above their own.”
The officers downplayed any talk of heroism, with Ascensio saying:
“We don’t think of us like heroes. We’re just doing our job and what we were trained to do.”