Indiana State University police officer Chris Heleine was just about to wrap up his shift on what had been an uneventful Wednesday afternoon when he decided to make one last drive around campus.
Heleine drove north on Fifth Street near the tennis courts when a dispatcher put out a call about a car fire on a campus parking lot that was barely a block away. He took a short cut through another parking lot just as a second call went out that the driver might still be inside the car.
He arrived on the scene to discover something much more than a typical car fire. The car in flames had crashed into three other vehicles and there was no sign anyone had tried to escape the car. Heleine grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to keep the flames at bay.
“When I first got there I remember thinking that if there was somebody in there they were, unfortunately, probably dead,” he said. “The wheels were still spinning, throwing rubber and asphalt. I went to the driver’s side because I didn’t see as many flames, but once I got there I kept getting hit with flying asphalt.”
Rushing back to the passenger side of the car, Heleine opened the back door to find ISU student Mark McKinley slumped over the console.
Heleine said he still doesn’t recall much from that point, other than realizing he needed to get McKinley out of harm’s way. Heleine quickly unbuckled the student’s seatbelt and started pulling him out when Sean Smith, a student working as a community service officer, arrived to lend a hand. Two other police officers responding to the call kept fire extinguishers trained on the vehicle until Heleine and Smith had dragged McKinley a safe distance from the car.
Campus security cameras captured the entire incident and show smoke filling the entire field of vision just seconds after the rescue. Until he saw the video, Heleine said, he didn’t realize how quickly smoke and fire engulfed the car.
“I was just focused on getting (McKinley) out,” he said.
Ambulance personnel rushed McKinley to Terre Haute’s Union Hospital and a medical helicopter later flew him to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. He was able to leave the hospital after three days and recuperate at home during fall break before returning to classes less than two weeks after the accident. McKinley is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in safety management as his second degree from Indiana State, having completed a bachelor’s in food service management in 2006.
Had a dedicated police officer not decided to make one more sweep of campus at the end of his shift, McKinley might not be alive today.
“If he had been 10 seconds later, I would have come out crispy,” McKinley said. “I owe my life to him.”
A couple of weeks after the accident, the 30-year-old Terre Haute man had the opportunity to meet Heleine.
“I told him that I was very thankful for what he did, and I’m glad that there are officers like him,” he said.
McKinley has epilepsy, and suffered a seizure while at the wheel of his car, he said.
Heleine, 29, said “it feels pretty neat to realize I saved a life, but I was just the first one there. We’ve got a good group of people on our department and they would have done the same thing. I’m just glad I was there.”
The rescue is “definitely the highlight” of what is still a relatively young law enforcement career, he said. The Terre Haute native initially wanted to become a teacher but decided to pursue a career in law enforcement after riding along with a friend who was an officer in West Terre Haute.
“I thought, ‘Wow! This is something I could do,’” he said. “I love it. I’m always outside and don’t have anybody breathing down by neck.”
Heleine has taken classes in Indiana State’s criminology and criminal justice department and plans to resume his studies and eventually complete a bachelor’s degree.
“I can’t say enough about how well Chris performed in this situation,” said Bill Mercier, chief of the ISU Police Department. “I believe that any of our officers would have done the same thing given the same circumstances but to see the video and actually see the degree to which Chris put himself in danger to rescue this student really points out what a fine officer he is. We are very fortunate to have in on our department.”
Dave Taylor is the director of media relations.