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Photos courtesy of Trooper

Chris Bridges

OHP Continued from Page 15

Beyond patrolling, the OHP possesses several specialized groups including an Emergency Re- sponse Team comprised of 50 troopers, a Tacti- cal Team and troopers assigned to Federal Task Forces to work with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the United States Secret Services, the United States Marshal’s Service and the FBI. One of the busiest groups is the OHP Bomb Squad, which services any community that does not have a team specialized to handle explosive devices. Only six communities (Edmond, Nor- man, Midwest City, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma County and Tulsa) in the state operate such groups, so the OHP teams travel continuously, handling everything from deadly improvised ex- plosive devices to false alarms.

The 1937 Ford, 1987 Chevrolet Caprice and the 2009 Dodge Charger represents History, Tradition and Dedication in serving “The Great State of Oklahoma.”

“We have a robust mission,” Pettingill said. “We’re not just about stopping speeders. That’s one of our primary efforts and we’re proud to keep our roadways safe, but we impact a lot of lives in ways people never imagine.” So what about those patrolmen? What is life really like for the average trooper, zipping down a highway in that black-and-white Ford Crown Victoria or Dodge Charger?

A trooper's tale David Vasquez, 43, has served as an OHP trooper for 15 years. A former member of the Marine Corps and deputy in Wilburton (Latimer County), Vasquez has experienced protecting country and community, but said that being an OHP trooper is different. It requires a family ef- fort and family sacrifi ce.

Raising the fl ag on graduation day for the 58th Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy at the Rob- ert R. Lester Training Complex in Oklahoma City.

“People don’t get it at first,” Vasquez said. “You spend 18 weeks in the academy acclima- tizing yourself to the lifestyle, and it is a lifestyle. The job places demands on you and your family. I can’t count how many times I missed T-ball games and family events. But we try to make the whole family involved right down to washing the car together. I have their unwavering sup- port and love. They have the hardest job.” Vasquez said there are “typical” days as a trooper. Eight-hour shifts can be completely consumed with “low-key” duties, handling speeders, being visible to deter crime and inter- acting with the community.

But then there are the other calls, the ones

“Parade Rest” for Trooper Malcom Deming #662 just below the south steps of the State Capitol of Oklahoma.


that lead to assisting with everything from car accidents and severe weather to a hostage situa- tion or a manhunt. These dangerous situations are compounded by one other fact. “The difference between an OHP and other law enforcement is that we often are alone, far from assistance,” Pettingill said. “Even today, local police, sheriffs or backup can be up to 45 minutes away or more. You have to have the will- ingness to perform any duty alone.” Vasquez explained that fear is often overcome by in-the-moment refl ex, where training and ex- perience supersede the impulse to fl ee. However, he said all troopers understand that a single de- cision can have signifi cant ramifi cations. “This is one job where an ordinary action can cause extraordinary results,” Vasquez said. “We

make choices, life-altering choices, and some- times we have only seconds to make the deci- sions.”

For Vasquez, one of those decisions came on March 16, 2011 in route to Burns Flat for three days of annual training. While enjoying the scenery from his patrol car window, he noticed smoke on the horizon. As he drove closer, the smoke grew denser and wider.

“I’ll never forget coming around this corner and there was a wall of smoke. It was menacing. It was like driving in heavy fog. I could only see a few feet in front of me,” he said. Vasquez positioned his unit on the eastbound side so no more cars would enter the haze. Stunned people were on the shoulder, pointing toward the smoke. He rushed into the bank of fumes, yelling out to anybody who might need help.

Finally, a faint woman’s voice replied. They called back and forth until Vasquez found her, an older woman named Elise, standing by her husband Jay, whose legs were badly burned. She was fi ne, but Jay was immobile and in severe pain. Vasquez rushed back to the road and emerged from the smoke too far from the EMS units to hear his frantic cries. The trooper plunged back into the smoke and found the couple again. “The fi re was getting closer,” he said. “Smoke was clogging our lungs. We were all coughing and our breathing was labored. We had to go. There was no choice.”

After arguing with Elise, who refused to leave her husband’s side, Vasquez sent her out of the smoke and promised that he would take care of Jay. Now, the trooper and Jay were alone, and they waited to see if any help would come. But with the fi re bearing down on them, Vasquez hoisted Jay onto his back. “I took the fi rst steps and thought, ‘There is no way I can do this,’” Vasquez said. “I was in shape but Jay was bigger than me and the smoke was taking its toll. But I started to say out loud ‘We’ve got to go.’ I kept saying it over and over, trying to motivate myself.”

The pair trudged along, step by step, before stumbling down an embankment and into thick mud. Jay screamed as they fell. Vasquez had to remove his own legs from mud holes and drag Jay the rest of the way. After 175 yards, Vasquez and Jay emerged from the smoke and covered in soot.

Later as the trooper sat in his car, exhausted and coughing, all he could do was think. “I still didn’t have words for what happened,” he said. “It was crazy. It still is crazy. I just re- member getting back in my car and driving to Burns Flat. I got there a little later than I ex- pected.”

In the end, Vasquez learned that a grass fi re had obscured the road, causing a six-vehicle pileup, which included the semi-trailer driven by Elise. The couple had stopped but were struck from behind and pushed off the road, causing the fuel tanks to rupture and catch fi re. Two people lost their lives in the fi ery crash and seven were injured.

Today, Vasquez still shares phone calls with Jay and Elise.

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