TERRE HAUTE —
On a typical day, Indiana State University police officer Chris Heleine might deal with theft reports, well-being checks or property damage accidents.
But Wednesday was not a typical day.
Just 4 1⁄2 years on the ISU police force, Heleine’s quick response probably saved the life of an ISU student who was incapacitated inside a burning car.
Black smoke had filled the student’s car and flames were quickly spreading, yet Heleine pulled the student out of the vehicle just in time. Other officers told him that about 10 seconds after he pulled the student out, the car was almost fully engulfed.
The student, 30-year-old Mark McKinley, was taken to Union Hospital and then airlifted to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he initially was listed in critical condition. On Thursday afternoon, his condition was upgraded to fair.
Several people are telling Heleine that he’s a hero, but he brushes it aside. “I was just the first person on the scene. Everybody else would have done the same,” the 28-year-old said in an interview Thursday.
The incident occurred about 1:47 p.m. in Parking Lot 21 at Fourth Street and Lafayette Avenue near the old Toney Oil property. McKinley apparently had a medical emergency, which caused his car to crash into another; his car then caught on fire.
At the time of the call, Heleine was driving a patrol car north on Fifth Street near Chestnut Street. Initially, the call came as a car fire, but soon he was advised someone was trapped in the car.
When Heleine arrived at the scene, “I could see flames coming up from the hood of the car. There was a lot of smoke. Some of the flames were starting to go back to the front passenger and front driver side doors.”
As he got to the car, he noticed the wheels were still spinning. He couldn’t see anyone because of the smoke, but he knew someone was in there.
A surveillance video from an ISU security camera captures the drama and shows Heleine running up to the burning car, holding a fire extinguisher.
He went to the driver’s side door to try and open it, but “I couldn’t get to it because there was too much flames on that side,” he said. He then went to the back, passenger side and opened the door “and smoke just rolled out.”
As Heleine let the smoke out, “I could see the guy was sitting in the driver’s seat slouched over the center console. I yelled at him multiple times, but he never responded to me. He was unconscious. I kept yelling three or four seconds, and finally I started hearing him moan.”
Everything happened in a matter of seconds.
Heleine took the fire extinguisher and sprayed some of the flames down, enough so that he could open up the front passenger side door.
“Once I opened it up, I saw he was wearing his seatbelt. I got in the car and unbuckled his seatbelt,” Heleine said. The front was engulfed and fire started to come up through the windshield and top part of the car, he said.
Heleine, who was on his knees on the passenger seat, grabbed McKinley’s arm and started pulling him out. Once McKinley was about half way out, a student community service officer assisted.
Other ISU police had also arrived and used fire extinguishers to help tame the flames as McKinley was pulled out of the car and taken a safe distance away.
McKinley’s car was almost fully engulfed about 10 seconds later, Heleine was told. Another car also caught fire, and others were damaged as well.
McKinley “was a little more conscious, but he couldn’t speak,” Heleine said. McKinley’s clothing had started to char, but he had a pulse and was breathing.
The Terre Haute Fire Department also had arrived and quickly extinguished the fire, while emergency medical personnel transported McKinley to the hospital.
“Everything went pretty quick,” Heleine said.
Despite what had occurred, he continued working Wednesday and completed his incident report. He didn’t have any injuries.
“Everybody is saying, hey, you did a good job,” Heleine said. “It makes me feel good, but that was one of the reasons I became a police officer … to help people.”
He hopes to eventually meet McKinley.
Bill Mercier, ISU police chief, said Heleine “did a great job.” He also had just talked to McKinley’s family and learned McKinley’s condition had improved.
Mercier praised the Terre Haute Fire Department for its quick response in putting out the fire. “It could have been a much more serious incident,” Mercier said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.