Murphy Police Officer Sarah Ashmore usually spent her Christmas mornings with family. As school resource officer, working the holiday shift is not her normal routine. Sergeant Jason Smith has been working for the department for 18 years, and has spent many Christmases in his patrol car while his family patiently waited for Santa Claus to arrive.
Neither officer went into this year's 12-hour Christmas shift expecting a typical night; they never knew what they would be facing when their shift began. They did not, however, expect to save the lives of their Murphy neighbors after an alleged drunk driver drove her car through their house.
“The car was already on fire when we got there," Ashmore says. "With the car on fire, the house began to catch fire as well. But honestly, there was not a moment’s hesitation. We knew there were people trapped in that scene and we had to do whatever we could to get them out.”
Smith agrees. “There was no way that we were just going to stand there and not help."
The victim’s neighbor had called 911 shortly after 1 a.m. and reported smoke coming out of the front door of his neighbor’s home at the 600 block of Tall Tree Dr., and a window had also been blown out. He didn’t see the 2008 Nissan Rogue allegedly travelling at a high rate of speed.
The 25-year-old driver, Vanessa Hernandez, was traveling eastbound on Renner Road and allegedly speeding across Murphy Road. She neither stopped when she saw a house looming larger and larger in her windshield nor when the road sign warning her to turn left or right was propelled upon impact into a nearby tree. She did not stop when she crashed through the fence in front of his neighbor’s house or when she rammed through two rooms and a bathroom. Her car finally stopped when she reached the garage.
A few moments after the neighbor’s 911 call, the homeowner called 911, reporting that his wife was pinned under a car that had plowed through their house. The husband had been upstairs and awake at the time of the crash, but his wife had been asleep in her bed. This wasn't the first time their home had been hit by a car.
Following the previous vehicle versus house incident, the homeowners built a formidable brick and wrought iron fence in front of their home. The goal of the tasteful yet sturdy deterrent was to avoid additional life-threatening occurrences.
Sadly, the fence did not provide the protection they were seeking.
Ofc. Ashmore and Sgt. Smith responded to the scene first. Smith says he expected to see the car just inside the window and not completely inside the house. A neighbor was there yelling that they needed help, and someone else was yelling for help inside the home.
“Through the smoke, I could see the man that was yelling,” Smith says. “I honestly thought that it was the driver of the car, and that he was attempting to get the homeowner out.”
Smith and Ashmore worked their way through debris — the lumber, the drywall, electrical wires, etc. — to get to the car. They noticed the front of Hernandez’s vehicle was already on fire. Flames and smoke were coming from underneath the engine, and their adrenaline had kicked into overdrive.
When they finally got to the driver’s side door, it opened and the driver — Hernandez — appeared to be dazed and confused inside and tried to close the car door.
“[It] surprised me because of my initial belief that it was the man yelling for help that was the driver,” Smith says. He grabbed the driver’s arm, assisted her out of the car, and directed her to Ofc. Ashmore.
He then made his way to the homeowners. The wife was directly under the front driver side wheel, covered from about the mid stomach down. Her husband was trying to pull her out and repeatedly yelling, “Help! She’s on fire!”
Smith grabbed the wife under her right arm, and her husband took her other arm, and they were able to pull her free. “I have no idea how she managed to avoid being injured,” he says. “Possibly the debris from the house kept the car from crushing her.”
After telling the homeowners to leave as the fire began to rage, Smith noticed Ashmore was struggling with the driver who allegedly refused to get out of the car. She was screaming, he says, and throwing herself on the floor.
“It was getting harder to breathe, so I grabbed her feet, Ofc. Ashmore grabbed her under her arms, and we carried her back through the front window,” he says.
By the time they got her out, the fire began to spread and fully engulfed the garage.
“There wasn’t really a lot of time to think about it,” Smith says. “I could hear the desperate tone in the man’s voice, yelling for help for his wife. As a husband myself, I can’t imagine what a terrifying, helpless feeling that must have been for him.”
Murphy Fire Rescue Department arrived shortly after the Murphy police chief. Fire and Rescue crews from Murphy, Richardson, and Plano fire departments were working hard to extinguish the fire. Murphy Assistant Fire Chief Greg Werner was asleep at home when he received the call. He is never scheduled to work on Christmas but is on call for major incidents all year.
When he arrived, Werner assumed command of the incident and organized the tracking and tactics of extinguishing the fire.
“A house fire takes many units to fight it safely. We work very closely with all surrounding agencies for aid giving and receiving,” Werner says. “We train each shift for some type of emergency. It keeps skills of the firefighter up and allows them to gain experience (while) training.”
The homeowner’s wife miraculously did not need to be taken to the hospital.
First responders transported Hernandez to Baylor Scott & White Hospital in Wylie. She was later arrested for driving while intoxicated. Her bond was set at $75,000.
With the incident in his rear-view mirror, Sgt. Smith is happy with the outcome. “I’m just glad that it worked out the way it did, and that no one, including the driver, was seriously injured.”
(Editor’s note: the homeowners could not be reached for comment.)