Editor's note: The following story was written by Tim Douglass, publisher of the Pope County Tribune about Glenwood Police Officer Cody Rupert, who is a graduate of Osakis High School.
When he opened the door, all Glenwood Police Officer Cody Rupert could see was thick smoke and red flames climbing up one of the walls. There was one or two feet of clear air near the floor, and Rupert could see a man's legs, and he knew he was down. At first, he thought he may be on fire and suffering severe burns.
Disregarding the thick smoke, Rupert entered the burning apartment, grabbed the man from the floor and pulled him out into the entryway. At that time, he knew he was still alive. He then closed the door to the apartment to keep the fire contained, got a grip on the man under his arms and hauled him down a narrow stairway outside, to fresh air.
Just then, Brian Clausen, a county sheriff's deputy, arrived and helped with the man as Rupert re-entered the building, knocking on doors and making sure anyone still in the apartment building was evacuated. He helped evacuate two other tenants, the only two in the five-apartment building who were home at the time of the fire.
About that time, the ambulance crew and the Glenwood and Starbuck Fire Departments and more police arrived.
They were arriving because through it all, Rupert kept in radio contact with dispatch and kept all informed of the situation.
Showing signs of smoke inhalation
It wasn't until all were out of the building and the man Rupert had dragged out of the burning apartment was being treated, that those on the scene had to stop Rupert and tell him that he needed medical attention.
"He was showing signs of smoke inhalation and needed attention but was still working on the scene," said Glenwood Police Chief Dale Danter in an interview a few days after the fire.
Once Rupert was examined, he was transported with the victim to the Glenwood hospital, treated for smoke inhalation and kept overnight for observation.
Danter said he spoke with the fire marshal after the incident and was told that Rupert "probably didn't know how close he came to succumbing and not recovering." Two or three breaths of that smoke can bring you down, and if you aren't out of the building, it can mean death, Danter said.
This story, however, had a happy ending. The victim was saved and survived with medical treatment. Officer Rupert was back on the job in a few days, after spending a night in the hospital, and the fire was extinguished without severe damage to the apartment building located at 115 1st Avenue SE in Glenwood. The cause, believed to be an unattended cooking fire, is still under investigation.
Officer was first on the scene
The reason Rupert was first on the scene is because he responded immediately to a dispatch that said a fire was reported by a tenant in apartment 4 at the building but the report said it was "contained in the oven." When Rupert arrived, he just grabbed his fire extinguisher, thinking it was "no big deal." "In the back of my mind when I arrived on the scene I thought I'd just pop open the oven and extinguish the fire," he told the Tribune.
"That was definitely wrong," he said.
Instead, when he entered the building he smelled smoke that was very strong when he located apartment 4, the location of the reported fire.
"I knocked on the door and yelled police department," he remembered. There was no response, and the door was unlocked so he opened the door.
That's when he was met by a wall of smoke with no visibility except a one-to-two-foot clearing beneath the smoke near the apartment's floor. He quickly called dispatch and reported that there was a structure fire so that the fire department could be notified.
That's when Rupert noticed flames climbing up the wall and saw the victim on the floor between the smoke and the fire.
"I thought 'I've got to get him out of there.' He was barely conscious and unable to stand, so I grabbed him and dragged him out of the apartment into the hallway," Rupert recalled.
That's when his training kicked in, and his next action probably saved the building and allowed more time to get others out.
"The fire department is always saying to keep the doors closed to contain the fire, so I closed the door behind me and then began pulling him down the steps and out of the building."
By the time Rupert got the man outside, Clausen was there and took the victim. Rupert radioed for the ambulance and then re-entered the building to make sure all other tenants were evacuated. By that time, the entire hallway was filled with smoke. He was able to get two of the tenants out. There were five apartments in the building, but only those two were home at the time of the fire, Rupert said.
When duty calls
Even in small communities, police officers might not return home after duty.
That could have easily happened to Rupert as he saved a man's life by entering a smoke-filled apartment and pulled a nearly unconscious man from the fire and smoke.
The way Rupert tells it, he just did what every officer would have done in the situation.
"I just think any officer who showed up on the scene would have done the same thing," Rupert said.
Still, what he did was remarkable, putting his own safety at risk to save another man's life, Danter said. "Had he not responded and done what he did, the man in the burning apartment more than likely would have died."
Still, Rupert said he "just played a small part in a team effort."
"I did what I did and the ambulance crew and the fire department showed up and did their part. I was just a small part of a large team effort."
Danter reiterated that Rupert acted "extremely bravely." While he didn't argue with Rupert's assessment, he did say that many officers who showed up on that scene might have questioned their actions and considered their own well being. "It was very selfless what you did, especially after dragging the victim out and going back to get more," Danter said in the interview with both officers.
"Without a doubt the man in the apartment would have died, had Cody not reacted the way he did," Danter said. "And (Rupert) doesn't know how close he came."
Again, Rupert credited the ambulance service and the fire department. "They did a great job of responding quickly despite the weather. (It was near-blizzard conditions when the call came in to dispatch.) Both the fire department and the ambulance are always fast, but this time they were right there," Rupert said. He also credited the hospital staff for the care he received.
About Officer Rupert
Officer Cody Rupert has been working for the Glenwood Police Department for about four and a half years. He is a graduate of Osakis High School and got his police training at Alexandria Technical College. He started his police work in Starbuck, working part time. He also worked part time for Glenwood until becoming a full-time officer three years ago. He is engaged to be married.