Friday, January 19, 2018
Public safety

Clearwater police officers awarded medals for heroic actions

CLEARWATER — Police officers see bodies all the time. Suburbanites drowned in their pools. Homeless men found deceased by joggers. Encounters with the dead happen often for the average patrol officer.

What is rare is the sight of someone at the very verge of death, and the chance to pull that person back from the edge.

That was the situation Clearwater Officers Maria Pita and Brian Tejera found themselves unexpectedly confronting on the afternoon of March 19. Their reaction would lead to awards for meritorious service, bestowed by Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway last week.

It was near the 5 p.m. end of shift for both officers, assigned to patrol zones in western Clearwater. A woman had called 911, saying her granddaughter was threatening to kill herself. Pita and Tejera, traveling in separate squad cars, responded to the woman's home on Sunnydale Drive, north of Sunset Point Road.

The chatter on the officers' radios didn't convey a sense of urgency, and the fire department was going to get to the house ahead of them. But for some reason, the pair chose to respond to the incident as quickly as they could, "coding" to the scene — lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Fire rescue officials were waiting outside the modest, one-story house when Pita and Tejera arrived. (It's routine for police officers to be the first emergency responders to approach suicidal individuals, who might be dangerous to others.)

Following the grandmother's directions, they proceeded, guns drawn, to a bedroom. The woman had barricaded it with a chair, but it came open with a shove.

Tejera cracked the door and peeked inside. He caught a glimpse of a woman, her posture erect. "It looked to me like she was just standing there on the other side of the door," Tejera recalled.

When the officers entered the room, the picture changed. The woman's feet dangled about a foot from the floor. A length of sturdy coaxial cable was looped around her neck and tied to the ceiling fan. She hung motionless. Her lips were blue.

"As soon as I walked in, I wanted to relieve the pressure on her neck," Pita said. "I felt like instinct took over."

Pita grabbed the woman's legs and pushed upward. Tejera whipped out a pocket knife and began cutting the cord. It was thick, and it took him a moment of frantic sawing to sever it.

They lowered her to the ground. Tejera ran outside to wave in the fire department's medical workers, while Pita tilted back the woman's head, opening her airway.

The woman was given emergency treatment at the scene, then transported to the hospital, where she remained for several days before recovering and being released.

Weeks after that incident, Tejera took on another high-adrenaline case, coaxing a 3-month-old baby from the arms of his delusional mother at Clearwater Harbor.

Last week, Pita and Tejera received Medals of Meritorious Service from the Clearwater Police Department for their actions in the potential suicide.

Also honored for their heroic actions were Sgt. Thomas Donnelly and Officer Jason Lambe, who helped to save two women whose vehicle caught fire following a crash; and Officer Kevin Klein, who disarmed a juvenile threatening to commit suicide.

Donnelly received the Medal of Valor. Lambe received a letter of commendation. Klein received a Medal of Distinguished Service.

There was another, less-noticed act of compassion that took place the day Pita and Tejera averted the suicide attempt.

The preteen son of the woman who tried to kill herself arrived home from school just minutes after the officers saved her. Pita caught saw him, dazed as he approached his house to find it surrounded by rescue vehicles and police cars.

"I immediately took him aside. I wouldn't let him go in," Pita said. "I didn't want him to see her in that condition."

Recollecting this second rescue, Pita paused.

"He would have found her if we hadn't gotten there," she said.

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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