April 4 was a strange night for David Culpepper of Milford — but if his day hadn’t been strange, his neighbor Bobbie Mitchell’s day could have been lethal.
As Culpepper was honored Tuesday at the Milford National Night Out for the quick thinking that saved his neighbor’s life, he said the night’s events seemed as if they were meant to be.
Normally a follower of the early-to-bed, early-to-rise mentality, a schedule change put him coming home around 11:30 p.m. — an unheard of time, Culpepper said. Mitchell, who lived alone, had been asleep for nearly an hour.
“I went to sleep because I was supposed to get up early the next morning to go to my daughter’s and then I really don’t know what woke me up,” she said. “I heard like a crackling or some kind of noise. I sat up in bed and got up and that’s when I hit the smoke.”
As Mitchell, who was hampered by a recent back surgery, tried to find her way to the door, Culpepper, a former volunteer fireman, was pulling up in his truck.
“I had just got home, backed in and I heard a pop,” he said. “I know that pop.”
Although most of Culpepper’s firefighting experience dealt with grass fires, he could see Mitchell’s car in the carport and knew she was still inside.
“I couldn’t speak, all I could do was beat on the house,” he said.
Inside, Mitchell was disoriented and struggling. The fire had begun near some wiring in a storage room at the back of the house, she later learned, but it was quickly spreading forward.
“I tried to find my way to the front door and by the time I got to the living room part, the smoke was really bad there,” she said. “I heard David hollering outside, and I remember telling him that I couldn’t find the door. … I don’t remember a whole lot after that, I basically just remember him trying to break down the door.”
The chain was on Mitchell’s door, but Culpepper forced his way in.
“My mind was telling me, ‘There ain’t no way,’ ” he said, but his body took over, rushing to find his neighbor.
In a surreal twist, Culpepper said that as he entered, he heard Mitchell’s answering machine pick up as a neighbor called to warn her out of the home, thinking it was the Culpepper’s house that was on fire. He pushed on.
“We found each other that night,” he said.
The two left and hurried across the street, where Culpepper’s wife, Sherri, had rushed their own family after being awakened by the blaze, fearing the fire would spread.
“When you see that, oh, my God, you just panic,” she said.
Milford police officer Josh Hearn was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene and the two attempted to return to the house to retrieve Mitchell’s purse and car keys, hoping to save what they could, but smoke forced them back.
“It was full of smoke,” he said.
Culpepper was treated for smoke inhalation, but said that he couldn’t have left Mitchell in the house.
“I knew she was in there,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a better neighbor.”
“He’s my hero,” Mitchell said. “If it hadn’t been for him, I probably wouldn’t have made it out.”
Sherri Culpepper said she was proud of both her husband’s actions and the work of the firefighters who arrived on the scene to control the blaze, which probably saved their home, she said.
“These guys are great,” she said. “We were never so glad to see them.”
David Culpepper was honored with a city proclamation and a Life Savers Award on Tuesday, Chief of Police Carlos Phoenix said, so the whole community could take part.
“We’ve been planning it ever since it happened,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Kerry Wallace said she’s not seen anything like Culpepper’s heroism in her time in office.
“He risked his life to save her,” she said. “We thought that was a really great thing.”
She also acknowledged all of Milford’s firefighters.
“Milford’s volunteer fire department really does a great job, there are some wonderful people,” she said. “We really appreciate them.”
Hearn said people who go above and beyond should be honored and just as much as emergency personnel.
“This is our job,” he said. “What about citizens that don’t have any ties, any responsibilities and do it?”
The Red Cross assisted Mitchell that night and she now lives on a family property in Centerville, where she says she will probably stay.
“I just want to say God bless you to David, because if it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said. “It was just like it was meant to be that way.”
E-mail Kelsie at firstname.lastname@example.org