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Sterling police officers commended for heroic efforts during deadly apartment fire

STERLING – When Tabatha Justice arrived at Western Apartments after midnight on June 1, the scene was chaotic.

Residents were rushing out of the building and gathering in the yard. Officers from the Rock Falls Police Department and sheriff's deputies from Whiteside County were asking questions and trying to calm the situation.

The two-story housing complex at 908 W. Third St. was burning, and officers were told of people trapped in an upstairs apartment.

But firefighters hadn't yet arrived.

So Justice, an officer with Sterling Police Department who hadn't responded to a house fire before, hatched a plan with her fellow officers.

She put her patrol vehicle in reverse and parked it as close as she could to an open window, allowing Sterling Police officer Mark Mendoza, along with Rock Falls Police officer Ethan Riley and Whiteside County sheriff's deputy George Depuy, to climb on its roof and reach toward the window.

Inside was a 12-year-old girl.

After moments of battling the smoke, the darkness and the sound caused by the fire, the girl, guided by the officers' flashlights and voices, finally found her way toward the window.

Mendoza stretched toward the heat of the flames, put his hands around her hips and lifted her through the window.

He lowered her down to Sterling officers Frank Hopes and Mackenzie Barnhart, who tended to her before medics arrived.

Flames reached the room 30 seconds later and ultimately engulfed the whole building.

"The fire just went up and engulfed so fast," Justice said. "It felt like hours, but it was probably just five minutes; either way, it felt like a lifetime until she was out."

The girl, along with her mother, 35-year-old Alma Walker, and nine other occupants survived.

Walker's 8-year-old niece, Shayla, of Davenport, Iowa, and her daughter, Celina Serrano, 13, of Sterling, died at the scene. A neighbor, Carrie A. Hose, 49, of Sterling, also died in her apartment.

It was because of their "display of initiative and alertness decidedly in excess of the norm in this particular instance" that Justice, Mendoza, Hopes and Barnhart each received the Sterling Police Life Saving Award Friday evening.

"We honor the heroic efforts of each one of these officers who did something that no officer, no matter how much training you have, you aren't prepared for," said Sterling Police Deputy Chief Alex Chavira.

The officers, joined by the Walker family, friends and community leaders, were also awarded a pin as an official commendation of their actions that night.

With blue and white stripes, it represents their dedication to law enforcement and the selfless acts of saving someone else's life, Chavira said.

"The outstanding police actions of these officers reflected great credit upon them and were in the highest traditions of the Sterling Police Department," Chavira said.

Mendoza, who has been on the force for four years, said he appreciates the recognition, but that he and his partners were just "doing what we were supposed to do."

"We heard someone that needed help, so we did what we needed to do to try to help that person – as if it were one of us," Mendoza said. "Sometimes you don't know what is going to happen, but you learn a lot about yourself when things like this happen."

Mendoza said that the Walker family is always on his mind, and he's continuously proud of his partners.

"It's something every day you think about," Mendoza said. "You dread to get another call like that, but we come to work every day because the community needs us."

Justice, who has been on the force for three years, largely agreed, saying that she was just being called to serve and to help others in need.

But she said she'll always remember this call.

"There's always traumatic calls that stay with you your whole life," Justice said. "But then you find yourself in everyday life kind of changing the way you are as a human, because of the things that you see on the job and have to deal with and respond to."

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