Printed on: July 26, 2013

Big-time recognition

6-foot-6 cop awarded for heroism during I.F. fire

By RUTH BROWN
rbrown@postregister.com

When you're 6 feet 6 inches tall, it's tough to go unnoticed.

But if Idaho Falls police officer Bart Whiting had his way, he would remain in the background.

"I generally don't like attention. I'm a big guy, but I always like to be in the back of the room," Whiting said. "I do like to serve and help people, so that's the driving force for me being in law enforcement."

Maybe that helps explain why Whiting was surprised by all the awards he's received.

After all, he was only doing his job when he ran into a burning apartment building in downtown Idaho Falls on Christmas Eve -- entering and re-entering the building multiple times to help save as many as seven people.

For his heroic actions, Whiting was named the Idaho American Legion "Police Officer of the Year" at a July 13 Legion conference in Boise. Earlier this year, he was recognized by the American Legion's Bonneville Post 56 as its "Officer of the Year" and also received the Idaho Falls Police Department Medal.

The Dec. 24 fire temporarily displaced 40 tenants. And 13 of the apartment building's occupants were sent to the hospital, according to previous reports.

When Whiting entered the five-story Bonneville Apartments, he said he could hear the screams of trapped residents. The building's smoke-filled halls were so dark he could barely see what was in front of him, even with a flashlight. Nothing was visible above the third-floor stairwell.

"I know what hell looks like now," he said. "It was pretty bad."

Whiting, who was first on the scene, found one resident on the third floor. He yelled to the woman to come forward. She walked only a short distance before fear set in and she stopped. Whiting only could see the woman's stationary feet.

So, Whiting walked into the smoke after her. He grabbed the woman, threw her over his shoulder and carried her down the steps and outside.

Whiting re-entered the building multiple times, helping six or seven out of the building, carrying four or five of them over his broad shoulders. He said he doesn't really remember exactly how many people he helped.

"I kept going in until the job was done," Whiting said. "I didn't really think about it."

Among the apartment building's residents was 64-year-old Roger Vickers, the uncle of Whiting's wife, Leann. Whiting was unable to get to Vickers' third-floor apartment and firefighters later rescued the man.

But Vickers, who already suffered from lung disease, died Jan. 9 of complications related to smoke inhalation during the fire.

Curtis Eckman, a firefighter with the Roberts Fire District, also works as a volunteer for the Eastern Idaho District of the American Red Cross of Greater Idaho. Eckman, who knows Whiting, was volunteering with the Red Cross when the fire broke out.

While Eckman didn't see Whiting at the fire scene -- he said he wasn't close enough -- he was not surprised to learn about the police officer's heroics.

"Bart is an upstanding individual, and I know he is more than deserving of this," Eckman said. "... Like so many other emergency responders, he loves his job."

Ruth Brown can be reached at 542-6750.