There may be no such thing as a retired cop; it’s more like they are “off duty.” It’s a mindset that many former police officers and emergency response professionals seem to share.
After spending 16 years as a police officer working in three different states and playing the role of first responder in numerous emergency situations, retired cop Mitch Dunford just can’t seem to get out of the “protect and serve” mode.
Dunford years ago left the police business due to an on-duty injury, earning an MBA degree and changing careers – eventually working his way up to president and CEO of Wells Media Inc., publisher of insurance-related websites and magazines, including Insurance Journal, Claims Journal, Carrier Management and MyNewMarkets.com.
He was driving through Southern California’s Inland Empire area on Wednesday on Interstate 215 en route to the Automotive Service & Repair Week (ASRW) conference in Las Vegas with his wife Cathy when the pair saw a car ram into the back of a tour bus and overturn.
They pulled off to the side of the road. With no help yet at the scene and believing a person or persons were trapped in a car in which the engine had already ignited, Dunford scrambled down an embankment where the car was resting overturned and attempted a rescue on his own while his wife watched from above and phoned for help.
“He climbed part way in and out of the back window several times, but he didn’t have anyone,” Cathy Dunford said. “He was trying to break the windshield so he could get to someone that I knew he could see. He was looking for something to break the windshield, like a big rock or something.”
Dunford even yanked out the car’s back seat cushion and attempted to break the windshield with the base.
“Breaking a windshield is almost impossible, and he knows that, but he couldn’t get to whoever was trapped,” Dunford’s wife said.
The fire in the engine compartment grew. Then the brush near the car caught fire, and the small blaze began moving its way up the embankment toward the freeway, according to Dunford.
“Mitch tried to push the car back on its wheels, but that didn’t work either,” she said. “I was on the phone with 911 for six minutes and still no one was there but me and another woman driver.”
Dunford cleared debris from near the car’s rear window and was able to finally get his entire body inside, where he saw a young man unconscious and slumped down at the front of the vehicle, according to his wife.
The driver, who was believed to have been intoxicated, is expected to be charged with a DUI.
“He said the flames from the engine were very close to his feet and he knew he didn’t have much time,” Dunford’s wife said. “He told me ‘I just couldn’t watch that guy burn to death. I could hear his breathing was really labored and I knew he was close to dying or really intoxicated. I knew I only had minutes and I was smelling for gas to make sure the gas tank wasn’t leaking.’”
Dunford was forced to crawl the length of the vehicle, grab the victim under his armpits and pull him over debris in the vehicle and over the seat.
Her husband dragged the man out onto the dirt and away from the vehicle by the wrists, by which time he had regained consciousness, Dunford said, adding that moments afterward the car was engulfed in flames.
And only moments before that she’d called to her husband to get out of the vehicle, fearing he wouldn’t make it out in time, she said.
“I was screaming the whole time for Mitch to get out of the car,” she said. “I was crying and screaming for him. But I was up on the freeway. And I knew he would be upset if I came down near the car.”
By her estimates it was a few minutes later when emergency crews arrived. Dunford gave a report to the California Highway Patrol, then he and his wife got back in their car and headed for the insurance conference.
“We stopped at the next exit and he washed his hands and got blood off of his arms and face,” she said. “Then he got a giant Mountain Dew. He got back into the car and put on the Sinatra channel on the radio and was ready to continue our trip to Vegas.”
Local media has reports on the incident, including interviews with witnesses. All references to Dunford were as an unnamed rescuer they termed as an “off duty cop.”
Dunford reluctantly spoke about the incident from the conference in Las Vegas, dismissing any notion that the act was heroic and offering an almost muted tone on the dangerous situation he put himself into while making the rescue.
“It wasn’t like I was flying blind,” said Dunford, who witnessed several car fires as a police officer. “It really sounds bigger than it was.”
Dunford listed several factors he had to take into account before responding as he did, including whether there was a severed fuel line, a gas tank rupture or leaking fuel around the area.
“It’s a series of instantaneous questions and decisions that go through your mind based on past experience,” he said.
Despite believing he had enough time to safely dislodge the driver from the wreck, Dunford knew time was running out for the man.
“I’ve been around car fires and those types of accidents and I had a pretty good idea based on the size of the fire and his injuries and the type of the accident that if he didn’t get out of that car within a matter of minutes, he was going to burn alive,” Dunford said.
Dunford has also seen his share of DUIs, having served on the police departments of Midvale, Utah, Redmond, Wash. and San Diego, Calif. Being a former police officer who now works within the insurance industry, he was particularly hopeful the driver would learn from his mistake.
“This boy would have burned alive last night because of his poor choices,” Dunford said. “Luckily no one else was involved. I hope he sees that as a gift and doesn’t take it for granted.”
No injuries have yet been reported for those on tour bus, which was carrying 22 passengers on its way to Las Vegas, according to a CHP report.
The report states the driver of a 2006 Pontiac G6 was heading north on Interstate 215 south of Devore Road in San Bernardino in the No. 1 lane at an undetermined speed, and the bus was traveling in same direction and lane at roughly 62 mph ahead of the Pontiac.
The bus began to break for slower traffic, at which point the driver of the Pontiac struck the rear end of the bus, then spun out of control and overturned and traveled down a dirt embankment, flipping again and eventually landing on its roof, according to the report.
The driver of the car was 26-year-old Josue Cisneros from Hesperia. He was taken by ambulance to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he was listed with “moderate to major injuries,” the report states.
The officer on the scene is expected to seek DUI charges against the driver, and issue a citation.
“The officer is recommending charges of DUI, both (a) and (b), for the driver,” said CHP public information officer Leon Lopez, adding, “and it looks like he didn’t have his insurance either.”