From the Field

Death in the line of duty

Posted: Nov 22, 2012 1:37 PM ET Last Updated: Nov 22, 2012 1:37 PM ET

Sandy Matharu held another person's life in his hands last night. He kept her alive by force of will and the strength in his forearms.

Matharu, an RCMP constable, was working a quiet back-shift on a crystal clear November night. One of those nights that make back-shift more livable, when the stars seem to pop in the sky. He could tell by the radio calls the cars in Lower Sackville were having a busy night of it but in Cole Harbour where Matharu was working it was mostly routine.
Then, just before midnight, someone driving along Main street spotted a house burning on Salmon River Drive and dialed 911. As fate would have it Matharu was a short distance away and caught the call. The stars vanished from the sky as he pulled up, their silvery sparkle lost in an ugly cloud of smoke glowing hot orange. What Matharu didn't see reflected in the smoke was that familiar red flash. The fire trucks were still a few minutes out.

He jumped from his squad car and ran to the fire. A wall of flames and billowing black smoke greeted him at the front door of the tiny bungalow. He looked in the driveway and his racing heart slowed just a little, there was no car parked there. He hoped it meant no one was inside. He ran around back looking for a way in. No luck there either. He had to wait.

The firefighters arrived and did what he could not. They fought their way through the smoke and flame. Matharu soon realized the empty driveway was not the omen he'd hoped. The firefighters carried a woman from the burning home and placed her at his feet. He dropped to his knees and pushed his hands inter her chest. CPR, compressions and breath, compressions and breath. He knew the routine and he kept at it sensing no life beneath him.

It seemed longer than it was. The paramedics arrived and quickly raced from the scene with her in their care. They found a faint sign of life. One he could not feel with those hands. It didn't last. By now her dead husband was out of the home as well and firefighters and paramedics tried unsuccessfully to bring him back.

The fire fighters returned to the fire, leaving Matharu to deal with the things a police officer deals with at a fatal fire scene. He talked to the next door neighbour, warned him he might have to leave his home, and asked questions about the people who lived in the burning house. He noted everything. Tried to find out who would be getting that call in the middle of the night. The neighbour didn't know. The smoke was thinning, the stars were back.

I've known Sandy Matharu long enough to like and respect him. When I found him at the fire scene a few hours later he didn't look like he'd just held life in his hands, fought for it and lost. But then he can hide those things better than most of us. He's seen the worst things that one human can do to another. He spent ten years as a major crime investigator. Major crime is a polite police euphemism. Murder squad sounds wrong.  But major crime means murder and for a long time that was the world he lived in. He's back in uniform now and away from that kind of death.

When he told me about trying to save the woman and not getting any life signs I asked why he kept at it. "Oh I've seen them come back after a long time, you just never know." No I wouldn't know. But then death in the line of duty is not a part of my job.

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About the Author

Phonse Jessome has been chasing stories down the main streets and back roads of Nova Scotia since the spring of 1981. So far he is showing no signs of giving up the chase.

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