TAMPA — When Tampa police Officer Shawn Purcell heard the call about a car crash as he ate his chicken and rice dinner, he never imagined he'd be saving a man from inside a burning car.
Purcell and six other officers braved a mountain of flames and rescued Ruben Perry, 35, from his 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Perry, who had minor injuries, was released from the hospital and spent Father's Day with his seven children.
Perry tried to thank the police officers Sunday morning, but they work the evening shift and hadn't arrived yet.
He didn't comment to a reporter later Sunday.
When Purcell arrived on scene Saturday, Officers James Byrne and Dwight Vinkemulder were already at the car, half inside the driver's side as they tried to pull out an unconscious Perry.
Another vehicle had collided with the passenger's side of Perry's car at the intersection of N 22nd and E Cayuga streets. The other driver, Bridgette Vann, 40, was okay, but Perry was trapped inside — his car collapsing around him like a cocoon as the fire in the engine compartment continued to grow.
Perry was wedged under the dashboard, his torso stuck between the center console, steering wheel and seat, with only his legs available for the three officers to pull.
As they exhausted themselves pulling over and over again, four other officers — Hunter Stevens, John Stanjeski, Andrew Seligman and James Parsons — grabbed fire extinguishers and transformed into temporary firefighters, trying to give the officers more time before the flames consumed the car.
Coughing and gagging on smoke after several unsuccessful attempts to free Perry, Purcell looked over at Byrne.
"He's not freeing up," he told him. They could hear the fire truck sirens in the background, but there was no way to tell if they would arrive in time.
"Let's pull once more," Byrne said. "Everybody give it one last pull."
They each grabbed whatever part of Perry they could and gave every ounce of strength they had left. Perry finally came loose.
Short of breath and muscles aching, the officers carried Perry about 10 feet from the car before collapsing from exhaustion.
"As we looked up, the entire car was engulfed in flames," Purcell said.
Though the rescue felt like an eternity, it probably lasted only about five minutes, Purcell said.
All of the police officers except Stevens were treated for smoke inhalation. Stevens continued his shift, reporting to other calls throughout the night.
As they drove to the hospital, bodies full of adrenaline and smoke, Purcell had to pull over.
"That chicken and rice came right back up," he said.
Even heroes aren't invincible.
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.