“It’s More Than Just Doing Their Jobs”

From my book, “Stories of Pensacola’s Finest,” available on Amazon.      

Marion and Mary Lou Williamson were pillars of the community. They had raised five children, all successful. Following the war, he married his sweetheart, Mary Lou, in 1946.

Officers James Hendry and Tonya Humphries at the scene of the fire in 1999

       In 1999, the elderly couple were living on East Avery Street in the same home they had occupied for many years. Mary Lou was confined to a wheelchair and Marion, suffering from cancer, was completely bedridden.

       The morning of November 28 was the beginning of a beautiful day. It started out cold – in the lower 40s, but it was sunny. For the Pensacola Police, it was a slow, peaceful day. It was the kind of day that young, action-seeking officer dread, but old “been there, done that” veterans love.

       “Headquarters to all units – we have a report of a house fire at 1901 E. Avery Street. There is a bedridden person in the house.”

       Officers James Hendy and Tonya Humphries were at the corner of 9th Avenue and Cervantes Street, a mile and half away. They both radioed that they were enroute. They made their way to the address, which was a 1 ½ miles away.

       “Wow, that is fully involved!” James thought as he arrived. “I wonder if I can get in there and help them out…I wonder if they are still alive!”

       He never hesitated. He knew that he had to get in there and try. He headed toward the house.

       As he opened the front door, thick black smoke billowed out. He forged into the house and found the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Williamson trying to get the front bedroom.

       “My husband’s in there!” she yelled in a panic. “He’s bedridden and can’t get out!”

       Anyone who knew James Hendry knew a couple of things about him. First, he always considered before committing. Second – he not an emotional guy. He was always even-tempered – never up or down

       In his ever-calm voice, James said “That’s okay, ma’am. We’ll get him out.” He truthfully didn’t know whether they would be able to get to him before the fire did, but he needed to get Mrs. Williamson’s cooperation. He wheeled her to the front door where he met Tonya coming in. As was always Tonya’s personality, she never hesitated to jump in, no matter the danger. Besides the Williamsons, her partner was in there! 

       “Take her outside. There’s someone else in here.”

       Tonya carefully but quickly pushed Mrs. Williamson out into the frosty morning to the safety of the front yard. She then turned her attention to the now-flaming house and ran inside. She thought to herself “Someone is inside, and he can’t get out of bed. I hope we can do this before it’s too late.”

       The fire was growing, and it would soon be too late for rescue – it might be already. James made his way through the smoke to the room where he could see bottles of oxygen – instant bombs. He heard Mr. Williamson calling to him and he could make out his legs on the bed.

       At that moment, he heard Tonya calling to him. They couldn’t see each other because of the thick, black smoke. “I called for James but got no answer. I breathed in to call again and inhaled my lungs full of suffocating smoke. I couldn’t see anything!”

       “In the bedroom,” he finally said over the burning sound of what was quickly becoming a huge bonfire. “Come in here!”

       The two picked up Mr. Williamson, snatching the oxygen tubes from his face. Now to enter back into the worst of the furnace, which was even greater now.

       By now the fire was dangerously close. The officers couldn’t see anything. They were filling their lungs with the black, poisonous fumes. But the biggest concern now was the heat. It was quickly becoming unbearable. They made their way out of the bedroom and were hit with the worst of the heat and smoke. As they struggled to carry the man through the living room, they repeatedly tripped over furniture, blinded by the smoke. They were coughing and laboring to breathe. Tonya felt her throat burning. The fire reached James as he was moving towards the door, burning his face, hair and eyelashes.

       What seemed like eternity in an inferno finally came to an end when the team got Mr. Williamson out into the clean, cold air. He was coughing and struggling to breathe. James and Tonya were also suffering from signs of smoke inhalation, and James’ face and hair were singed.

       Officer Greg Pate arrived on the scene as James and Tonya were exiting the house with Mr. Williamson. As they were exiting the doorway, the column of thick, black smoke gave way to a tongue of flames, which covered the front door. The fire exploded out of the door and up to the roof of the house. Suddenly, explosions occurred within the house – Mr. Williamson’s oxygen bottles had become bombs seconds after James and Tonya got the homeowner out.

       The Pensacola News Journal called them heroes the next day. In their typical fashion, the two officers downplayed their actions. But Cheryl Burroughs, the Williamsons’ daughter, said “I know they wouldn’t have made it out without the help of the officers. It’s more than just doing their jobs.”

       On January 21, 2000, Officers Humphries and Hendry were awarded the Pensacola Police Department’s highest award, the Gold Medal of Valor.

       While it is true that police officers consider risking their lives as a daily task, Cheryl Burroughs was correct – It’s more than just doing their jobs.

James Hendry and Tonya Humphries in 2021 with their Gold Medals of Valor


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