The Heroic Story of the Rescue of Marion and Mary Lou Williamson
From the 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. Marion was born in Largo, Florida. He joined the U. S. Navy in the midst of World War II and spent the next 22 years serving his country. Following the war, he married his sweetheart, Mary Lou, in 1946. In 1961, the family moved to Pensacola and made a permanent home there. When Marion retired from the Navy, he got a job with the post office.
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 bedridden.
The morning of November 28 – twenty-three years ago today – 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 officers dread, but old “been there, done that” veterans love.
Mary Lou was cooking on her stove. When she finished, she unplugged the cooker and went into the bedroom. A few minutes later, she noticed smoke coming from the kitchen. She immediately called 911.
“My kitchen is on fire! I am in a wheelchair and my husband is bedridden! We need help!”
“Headquarters to all units,” broadcast the Pensacola Police dispatcher, “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. With lights and sirens, they rushed to the address, which was 1 ½ miles away.
Tonya had been a police officer since 1986. She held the position of the officer to call in case someone needed to communicate with a deaf person. She was compassionate in that way.
There was one humorous case that made the News Journal, however, in the arrest of a pig. I mean a real pig, not a cop. The pig was loose, running the streets on October 11, 1999. Sgt. McDonald and Officers Jason Hendricks and Tonya were called to “corral” the animal. By the way, this was new. They don’t teach “pig catching” in the law enforcement academy. So, they developed a plan. Tonya approached the pig (carefully) with a piece of bread, for bribery. Meanwhile, Sgt. McDonald charged the pig with a lassoed rope and put it around the pig’s collar while Hendricks ran up behind it and grabbed its back legs. Arrest successful.
James had been a Pensacola Police Officer for about 10 years. During those years, however, he had made a name for himself. Like the time on July 1, 1995, when he was patrolling on West Belmont Street at 3:45 in the morning. Being observant, James noticed a man behind a building. James asked himself why a man would be behind a closed business at 3:45 in the morning and couldn’t come up with any good reasons. Then the man saw James and started to run. James called it in and gave chase. About a block away, the man saw a car with women in it. He snatched the door open, jumped inside and ordered the women to drive off. The driver stopped the car and threw the guy out, just as James caught him. He went to jail. Both James and Tonya were fine officers.
James arrived first. There was no need to check the address – he could see the black smoke billowing from the house. He ran into the house and found the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Williamson. She was in the living room, trying to get to the front bedroom.
“My husband’s in there!” she yelled in a panic. “He’s bedridden and can’t get out!”
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.
“Take her outside. There’s someone else in here.”
Tonya carefully, but hurriedly 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.” If not, I hope I can get James out…if I can even get out myself.
James turned and dove back into the house. He considered trying to put the fire out but realized that he had to get the man out first. The fire was growing, and it would soon be too late for rescue – it might be already. He made his way through the black smoke to the room where Mrs. Williamson had been trying to get to. He could see a bed but no person. What he could see, though, were several bottles of oxygen. James realized that the heat and fire could turn them into instant bombs. He heard Mr. Williamson calling to him and, through the smoke, 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.
In the movies, the smoke is carefully placed so the people are in no danger and the camera can see the action. In real life, though, not the case. Smoke from a house fire is a thick, black collection of deadly toxic fumes that is quickly overwhelming and debilitating. In addition to not being able to breathe, the smoke burns the eyes beyond belief. Doesn’t matter anyway – because you can’t see anything. It’s like a black cloak is placed over your head.
“In the bedroom,” he said over the burning sound of what was quickly becoming a huge bonfire. “Come in here!”
When Tonya got to James, the two picked up Mr. Williamson – James got his upper body and Tonya got his legs, and they lifted him. Now to enter back into the worst of the furnace, which was growing more intense every moment.
By now the fire was dangerously close. The officers couldn’t see anything. They were breathing the black, poisonous fumes. But the biggest concern now was the heat. It was quickly becoming unbearable. Shading Mr. Williamson as much as possible with their bodies, 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. 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 soon as they got clear of the doorway, the column of thick, black smoke pouring out of the front door gave way to flames, which covered the front door. The flames 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 explosive devises seconds after James and Tonya got the homeowner out.
Emergency Medical Services arrived and began tending to the Williamsons, then transported them to the hospital. The officers were ordered to the emergency room against their will. Both were treated for smoke inhalation. In addition, part of James’ hair was burned. Both officers were soon released.
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.”
In January 2000, the Pensacola Chapter or the Sons of the American Revolution presented Officers Hendry and Humphries with the Medal of Heroism.
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.