When instinct said 'run away,' officer pushed through flames to help

Story highlights

  • LAPD Officer Donald Thompson pulled a man from his burning car
  • "Had he not come along, I wouldn't have made it," the victim says
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(CNN)When President Barack Obama awarded Los Angeles Police Officer Donald Thompson the Medal of Valor in May, the 6-foot-1 commander in chief had to stand on his tiptoes to hang the medal around the neck of the 6-foot-7 hero.

But his height is only one of the ways in which he stands out. Obama said of the extraordinary officers who were saluted at the ceremony, "The men and women who run toward danger remind us with your courage and humility what the highest form of citizenship looks like."
    Thompson, 57, received the Medal of Valor, the nation's highest award for valor presented to a public safety officer, for rescuing an unconscious man from a burning vehicle in 2013.

    'A huge ball of fire'

    December 25, 2013, was a quiet Christmas morning for Thompson. Both he and his wife, a restaurant manager, had to work, so the LAPD bomb technician dropped his then-13-year-old daughter off at her best friend's house and headed in for duty. Thompson said he figured he'd get to work early to let co-workers leave earlier, a Christmas gesture. Southbound on the 405 freeway, traffic was extremely light.
    But after driving only a half-mile, Thompson watched as a northbound Mercedes-Benz station wagon slammed into the wall, veered across the freeway and smashed into the center divider.
    "After it hit, a huge ball of fire happened," Thompson said.
    Thompson pulled over to the center divider, within 30 feet of the car, which was rapidly being engulfed in flames. He jumped over two barricades to get to the car, but the door and the front fender had been damaged in the impact, and Thompson had to force the door open.
    "You feel like you're on a rotisserie," Thompson said. "I noted how much heat I was experiencing. I could feel the heat on all my exposed skin."
    He could see the driver inside, slumped over and unconscious.
    The seat belt held the unconscious man in the car, and Thompson had to fumble in the flames for the release button. From the rear of the station wagon, the fire continued to consume more of the vehicle, becoming more intense as the smoke grew thicker.
    A flame leaped up to burn his arm, causing him to draw back in pain.
    "What you instinctively want to do is turn around and just run away. You've got pain, and there's all this heat. Now there's smoke," Thompson said, "I just had to bear down. One of the hardest things I've had to do was stay focused and not just back away and turn around and run."
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    But Thompson stuck with it. Again he fought with the seat belt release. It must have only been a second or two, he said, but it felt like much longer before he was able to get the seat belt unlatched and pull the man out of the car.
    "He weighed over 200 pounds, but he was so light," said Thompson, "He felt like he only weighed an ounce or two. Adrenaline is absolutely amazing."
    Helped by two bystanders, Thompson pulled the driver to safety.

    'He's my miracle worker'

    "I'd probably not be here today had it not been for Don Thompson," said Bill McWhorter, a 72-year-old landscape and architectural designer who had a medical emergency that caused him to black out, lose control of his car and run into the center divider of the highway. "Not everyone would do that. Had he not come along, I wouldn't have made it, I'm sure. He's my miracle worker."
    McWhorter said he suffered only a few burns and a couple cracked ribs, while the LAPD said Thompson received first- and second-degree burns.
    "We are honored to call him an LAPD officer," the department said of Thompson on its Facebook page, "and are humbled by his amazing act of courage and selflessness."
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    Thompson said the important thing is that he was able to get McWhorter to safety. He doesn't think he could have lived with the knowledge that he didn't do everything he could to help someone who would have died without him.
    "Imagine if it was maybe your husband or your child, mother or father. That person in the there was someone's loved one," Thompson said. "There's no plaque, citation or acknowledgment that could take the place of someone looking you in the eye and saying, 'thank you for saving my life.' "