Almost a year has passed since D.C. Police Officer Steven O'Dell saved one toddler from a burning Northeast rowhouse and then kept that child and two other infants alive by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on them, all on his day off.
"It was the worst thing I ever had to deal with in my 13 years on the force," O'Dell said. "To see little kids burned up like that makes you stop and realize how just how precious life is."
Yesterday, O'Dell, 33, was given the Gold Award of Valor in recognition of his actions to save those children on Oct. 25, 1983. It is the highest honor given by the District of Columbia. Eighteen other District police officers and firefighters were honored yesterday with the silver medal at a hotel luncheon sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
One award was given to a police officer who was off duty when he arrested an armed person while surrounded by an angry crowd.
A group of firefighters were honored for saving colleagues who were trapped in a burning building. The firefighters rigged a ladder between two roofs and guided them to safety.
O'Dell recalled yesterday that he had just bought some records downtown and was driving home in his newly purchased 1976 Toyota when he saw smoke billowing out of a rowhouse near 18th and Rhode Island Avenue NE.
"There were lots of people standing out front real casual like. My first impression was not one of alarm. No one was excited. I asked if anyone was in the house and they said no," he said.
"Then I looked up on the roof of the porch and a man came out through a window. The curtains were on fire. He reached back in and pulled out a child. I suddenly realized that there were probably other children in the house."
O'Dell said that he ran into the house and up the stairs through the smoke to find that the front bedroom was on fire.
"With all the smoke, all you can do is feel for someone. I found a child on a bed. I carried the child out in my arms. From the time I picked up that child, I never thought about the smoke again."
He said that he found two other babies on the hood of an old Cadillac when he brought the toddler out of the house. "They were all in bad shape. I did several rounds of C.P.R. on all of them. There was a little girl who was badly burned."
O'Dell said that he worked on all three children till the ambulance crews arrived. "Then, I just got back in my car and rode around for awhile. I had a bad headache from the smoke. I was very upset. I kept thinking about my child being in a fire like that."
O'Dell said that he has stayed in touch with the child who was badly burned, and with her parents. He said that a birthday party is planned for the burned girl on Saturday. "She will be 2 years old. She lost fingers in the fire and her leg muscles are deformed from the fire. But she is the brightest, happiest little kid you will ever meet. The real heroes are that little girl and her mother and father."