Now he knows.
Coleman awoke around 3 a.m. Feb. 5 to the cries of a neighbor on Blocker Drive in Bessemer shouting that a house two doors down was on fire and people were still inside.
“By the time I put my jeans on and got down there, an officer (Bessemer Police) was bringing out the woman who lived there, asking if anyone else was in the house,” Coleman recalled. “All she could say was she couldn’t get the door open. She was frantic.”
Coleman knew a young man with autism lived with the elderly woman, and he was nowhere to be found outside the house. So Coleman and a second Bessemer police officer went inside as the flames and smoke intensified.
“The fire was in the upstairs bedroom but smoke was pouring down the staircase,” Coleman said. “And there he was; just standing there at the bottom of the stairs.”
The 22-year-old man has autism and does not speak, according to Bessemer Fire Department Capt. Robert Washington. The woman is his caretaker, Janice Wallace.
Coleman didn’t know the two well, but had noticed a special needs bus taking the young man to and from school daily.
As the smoke billows enlarged and breathing became difficult, the Bessemer officer quickly shouted for the boy to come to them at the front door. He wouldn’t budge.
“I just went over there and picked him up in my arms and carried him out,” Coleman said. “I don’t know if I threw him over my shoulder or what. We were just trying to get out of there.”
And get out they did. Within minutes the Bessemer Fire Department was on the scene extinguishing the blaze confined to an upstairs bedroom. Washington said the cause is still under investigation.
Coleman shuns the hero moniker, saying it was a team effort, starting with the neighbor, Lawrence Blocker, whose family gave the street its name, going from house to house crying for help, and the two Bessemer officers who arrived early on the scene and bravely went into the smoking house.
Coleman, who has been with the power company a year and a half, has seen his share of close calls and tragic events as a long-time member of the Birmingham Police Department’s Tactical Unit. He has been a canine and motorcycle instructor; a bomb-squad member; a SWAT team member; a hazardous materials specialist; and rode mounted patrol, among other things.
“I would always kid with the guys at the Fire Department I’d rather be in a gun battle any day than a burning house,” Coleman chuckled. “But when I saw that boy standing in that burning house, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I know now why everyone loves firemen.”