Clayton County police Officer Rocky Lee talks about his efforts to save the life of a man from a house fire in Morrow early Sunday morning. Officer Phong Nguyen is at right. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — It never occurred to Clayton County rookie police Officer Rocky Lee to wait for firefighters to rescue a man from a Morrow house fire early Sunday morning.
“It’s what I’m expected to do on a scene like that,” said Lee Monday. “As far as being afraid, there was not one thought that maybe I shouldn’t do it.”
Lee was on patrol at Jonesboro and Lake Harbin roads about 1:05 a.m. Sunday when a call went out for a house fire on nearby Charles Drive in Morrow. Fabian Jones, 37, had been watching basketball on television and frying sausage and potatoes when grease ignited into a blaze, said Lee.
“I immediately saw his wife standing in the driveway, screaming that her husband was inside the house, to kick in the door and save her husband,” he said. “She said that he was in the kitchen.”
Lee said he kicked in the carport door to enter the kitchen but was met with thick white smoke — and scenes from a popular Hollywood movie about fire running through his mind.
“I waited to make sure there was no backdraft or Hollywood theatrics,” he said. “The movie ‘Backdraft’ was going through my mind. I was very lucky nothing happened.”
Once Lee stepped inside the kitchen, he lost his bearings amid the heavy smoke. He said he remembered training that went back to elementary school.
“I thought about ‘stop, drop and roll,’” he said. “I dropped to my knees and called out to the victim to make noise so I could tell where he was but I never got a response.”
Lee said he waited a couple seconds before he could detect the sounds of someone struggling to breathe. Jones was slumped against the washer and dryer behind the door Lee had entered.
“I felt the leg of the victim and jumped up,” he said. “I saw it was Mr. Jones. He was unconscious and unresponsive. I grabbed the waistband of his shorts with my right hand and used my left to guide us to the door.”
By the time the pair got outside, other officers had arrived and helped Lee carry Jones a safe distance from the fire. They worked to clear his airway until medics arrived, he said.
Failure was not an option, said Lee.
“I knew I was not coming out of that house unless we were both carried out by firefighters or he’s coming with me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have kicked in the door if I didn’t have the intention to rescue him.”
Lee was overcome with smoke and coughed and sneezed for hours to clear his own airways. He took some ribbing from his retired firefighter dad.
“He teased me that I couldn’t handle a little smoke,” said Lee.
Serving and protecting are in Lee’s DNA. His grandfather was the ninth police officer hired in Clayton County. He has cousins, uncles and brothers who are in various law enforcement fields in Clayton and Henry counties.
He’s been on solo patrol for less than a year and said the rescue wasn’t even the scariest thing he’s faced as an officer.
“The scariest thing has been an alarm at a church on Panola Road in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere,” said Lee. “That not knowing what might happen. That’s scary. But we’re expected to put our lives on the line to save others. When you put on this uniform, you forfeit the right to be afraid.”
Capt. Angelo Daniel called Lee “brave.”
“This situation is a clear definition of what it means to protect and serve,” he said. “He is a brave individual. He reflected on his training and preparation and we’re proud of his actions. But a lot of it is instincts and his instincts saved this individual and brought him back to his family.”
Lee went to Grady Memorial Hospital to visit Jones, who is recovering from burns and smoke inhalation, but didn’t reveal his role in the rescue.
“He said he was watching basketball and cooking sausage and French fries,” said Lee. “The next thing he knew, he was waking up inside the ambulance.”