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All in a day's work for local hero

LAPD officer awarded Medal of Valor for evacuating people from burning building

Posted: June 7, 2009 9:49 p.m.
Updated: June 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Los Angeles Police Sergeant Hayley Smith received a Medal of Valor for being one of several officers to run into a burning apartment building to evacuate residents in May 2008.

It was a Monday morning, May 5, 2008, and Los Angeles Police Officer Hayley Smith and her partner, Officer Vincent Rojas, were just a few hours into their day.

After assisting an LAPD SWAT team at a crime scene near Topanga Canyon Road, they were driving back to the Mission Hills area to which they were assigned when the pair saw a plume of smoke belch into the sky from behind a 12-unit apartment complex on Owensmouth Avenue.

They assumed the fire department would arrive shortly and drove to the scene of the fire.

They were the first to arrive at the scene, and soon were joined by two other officers.

"It's the cop mentality to go and help," Smith said.

It would be 15 minutes before firefighters arrived.

A fire had started in the car port behind the building, setting off explosions as it began to engulf automobiles and advanced into the building itself.

"It was like an earthquake every time," she said.

Smith and her fellow cops snapped into action, running into the burning, smoky building and evacuating residents, some of whom were still asleep.

"Your first instinct is to hurry up and get people out," she said.

A few people - including Smith - wound up in a hospital emergency room, where they were treated for smoke inhalation, but she said there were no major injuries.

On May 28, now-Sgt. Smith, a nearly 10-year Santa Clarita resident, was one of 25 officers awarded the department's Medal of Valor.

Rojas and officers Heriberto Salazar and Laura Gonzalez also received the medal.

The medal - the LAPD's highest honor - is bestowed on officers who "performed an act displaying extreme courage while consciously facing imminent peril," according to the award guidelines.

"For me, that was just another 12-hour shift," Smith said.

Having transferred to the South Los Angeles-area 77th Street station in the months since the fire, Smith had no idea she'd been recommended for the award.

She received a phone call while out of town earlier this spring, being told to report to work the next day for a medal ceremony orientation.

"I'm very honored and proud," she said. "It was really nice to be a part of that group of people.

"I'm still pinching myself."

A 13-year veteran of the LAPD, Smith was born and raised in England and has lived in California since 1990.

At 22 years old, she joined the department.

She was made a sergeant last December, and expects to retire from the LAPD, hopefully at the level of a captain.

"I love it," she said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."


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