RALEIGH — Although it was nearly six months ago, Trooper Jerome McMillian vividly remembers the night he and two fellow highway patrolmen saved the life of a man trapped inside a burning vehicle.
“He kind of looked in my eyes and was like, ‘Please, don’t let me die this way,’” McMillian said.
On Tuesday, McMillian, Douglas B. Strickland and Kyle Covington were presented with State Highway Patrol Valor Awards in recognition of their service that night. It is the agency’s highest award, according to a statement from 1st Sgt. Jeff Gordon, and honors those who demonstrate “outstanding judgment, courage, personal bravery and a selfless act of heroism.”
On June 8, Strickland and McMillian were operating a license checkpoint on N.C. 211 when a vehicle sped by without stopping.
“We hadn’t been there maybe five minutes,” McMillian said.
They pursued the car and found it had crashed into a tree at the intersection of Carthage Road and Pine Log Road and was on fire.
McMillian remembers seeing the car’s door in the middle of the highway, and expecting the driver to flee the scene.
“I didn’t realize he was pinned,” said McMillian, who is from Fair Bluff. “When I got up to the car, he started yelling that he couldn’t get out.”
Strickland and McMillian used up their fire extinguishers fighting the blaze and called for help. Covington responded, bringing another fire extinguisher. Then, Covington said, his instincts kicked in and the moment flew by.
“It’s just one of those things you get down and do,” he said. “I didn’t really think about it.”
Covington controlled the flames as his colleagues tried to free the driver, whose legs were pinned by the steering wheel. They struggled to drag the bleeding driver to safety and, about 15 seconds later, the vehicle was consumed by the fire, said McMillian.
It turned out the man had an extensive criminal background and was driving a stolen car. He was considered armed and dangerous.
McMillian, a trooper since 2003, doesn’t regret risking his life for a stranger with a lengthy rap sheet.
“Regardless of what people do, I really don’t feel people deserve to die that way,” he said.
Covington, a Lumberton native who has been a trooper for eight years, says he never expected to be honored for what he did that night.
“It’s nice to be recognized by such a big organization that covers the entire state,” he said. Covington comes from a long line of law enforcement officers — both his father and grandfather were on the Highway Patrol, and his brother is a police officer.
McMillian appreciated being honored in a field where, more often than not, any news is bad news.
“We’re thankful that we were able to get him out but there are times when you can’t,” he said.
At the ceremony, more than 20 people from across the state were presented with awards by Col. Bill Grey, commander of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, and Frank Perry, secretary of the Department of Public Safety. The event was held at the State Bureau of Investigations Auditorium on Old Garner Road.
Valor Awards were also given to Troopers Gregory N. Gentieu from Morganton and Joshua M. Cockerham from Wilkesboro. Three individuals got the State Highway Patrol Appreciation Award, nine individuals and one troop received the Meritorious Award, six individuals were given the Samaritan award and one trooper got the Humanitarian Award.