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Braving the inferno.

Shortly after noon on September 1, 2002, Mrs. Sigrid Szymczak-Hopson, 70, was at her cabin in the San Gabriel Canyon of California's Angeles National Forest when a forest fire ignited about three miles distant and began moving toward the cabin. The "Curve Fire," as it became known, burned more than 1,000 acres of forest during its first hour, and eventually consumed more than 21,000 acres over 12 days.

As the blaze began spreading, authorities ordered evacuation of the area. Mrs. Szymczak-Hopson, however, refused to leave the cabin despite repeated efforts by her husband and law enforcement personnel to convince her otherwise. Mr. Hopson told authorities that his wife had lost her first husband and only son under tragic circumstances. Distraught, she was now prepared to use a handgun she possessed to shoot herself and the couple's three dogs to avoid being burned alive.

When the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department learned of the situation, deputies Paul Archambault and John Rose II offered to help rescue the elderly woman. Setting out for her cabin in an SUV, they were stopped at a roadblock and warned by firefighters that the route was impassable. Undeterred, the deputies drove off-road into the forest, navigating around burning brush and other debris. The extreme heat singed their arms and made the vehicle's surfaces too hot to touch.

As the deputies approached to within a quarter-mile of the cabin, they were barely able to see through the dense smoke. Since the SUV had sustained significant damage, they decided that Deputy Archambault should remain with it in a small patch that had not been consumed by the fire. He kept it moving so the engine would not die, while Deputy Rose ran the rest of the way to the cabin.

Arriving at the structure, Rose found that Mrs. Szymczak-Hopson had already shot one of her dogs, but had set the other two free. Refusing the deputy's assistance, she pleaded with him to let her die by her own hand rather than be burned alive. The deputy led her to believe that she had convinced him--then grabbed the gun from her hand and escorted her down the burning trail to the waiting SUV.

Deputy Archambault maneuvered the vehicle several miles over burning roads and around large boulders and debris. The undercarriage caught fire on the way, and two tires went flat, before the truck ground to a halt within walking distance of firefighters who took the deputies and Mrs. Szymczak-Hopson to safety. Remarkably, all three emerged from the harrowing ordeal without serious injury.

In recognition of their courageous actions, Deputies Archambault and Rose were selected Officers of the Month for January 2003 by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. And, on April 22 of this year, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission announced that each had received a Carnegie Medal and $3,500 grant for risking their lives "to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others." The two lawmen insist, however, that they were merely fortunate to be in the right place when their help was needed, and did nothing especially heroic. In Deputy Rose's words, "Any one of our brothers would have attempted the same."
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Title Annotation:The Goodness of America
Author:Lee, Robert W.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Aug 9, 2004
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