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Officer honored for saving life

Only two weeks ago, Officer Shirley Atherton was crawling on the floor of a house on fire.

Dense smoke had risen enough to let her pass through the house on her stomach and pull a man to safety.

Friday, Atherton was described as a hero.

She was awarded a Commendation of Honor by Pinellas Park police Chief David Milchan.

Because the officer forsook her own safety, Milchan said, 59-year-old Thomas Gibson did not die in a fire that gutted his house Feb. 19.

The honor is the highest bestowed on Pinellas Park officers, but within hours of receiving the award Friday, Atherton was patrolling the streets again.

That Saturday night two weeks ago, Atherton says, she simply was doing her job.

"I think any other officer under the same situation would have done the very same thing," said Atherton, an officer for two years. "Police are out here to protect and serve. That's what our job is."

Atherton and Sgt. Ed McReynolds arrived at 4161 68th Ave. N about 9 p.m. to find the back part of the house engulfed in flames. As they arrived, Gibson's wife, Barbara, came through the front door, covered in soot.

She said her husband still was inside trying to put out the fire. McReynolds has said he had turned away to get a mask, and when he turned back, Atherton had already gone in.

"I heard the (Fire Department) sirens and they sounded too far away," Atherton recalled the next day. "I just knew I couldn't stand outside and wait."

Jars and glassware could be heard exploding all around her from the intense heat. The fire was spreading.

Gibson, who recently had suffered a stroke, was in the kitchen, coughing and moaning. Atherton could hear him until he passed out.

On her stomach, she pulled Gibson, described as a large man, on his back to the front door. Gibson was revived, then taken to the hospital after Atherton persuaded him to leave his house.

The Gibsons now stay in a motel while construction workers repair their home. Mr. Gibson was not at the awards ceremony Friday, but sent word thanking Atherton.

Friday afternoon, Atherton, 26, had returned to her regular patrols with a new medal pinned to her uniform.

"I feel very honored by it. It was very complimentary," the officer said. "It makes me feel good."