Editor’s Notebook: Courage Under Fire

September 2011, Vol. 238 No. 9

You can’t really define a hero. Nobody wakes up and realizes he or she is going to face a life-altering event later that day.

Tommy Swindle certainly had no inkling that Oct. 12, 2010 would be the most memorable day of his 17-year career as a gas meter technician for Alagasco. In just a few hours he would be staring a cocked rifle in the face and moments later using some of the skills he learned years ago as a Boy Scout to save a woman’s leg, probably her life.

Tommy, 48, was assigned to turn on a gas meter for Pauline Chaney, who lives in a somewhat rundown section of Selma, AL, which is Tommy’s hometown. They spoke briefly, then Pauline sat on the porch, waiting for Tommy to finish his job. That’s when a pickup stopped in front of Tommy’s truck. The driver stepped out, ignored Tommy’s greeting, and began a shouting match with Pauline in an apparent domestic dispute. He grabbed a high-powered rifle from the truck, aimed and shot at Pauline. He missed, she ran inside and locked the door. Tommy was calling 9-1-1.

The gunman kicked in the front door and began chasing Pauline who frantically raced from the house to Tommy’s service truck just as he finished his second call to 9-1-1. As she hid behind Tommy’s 6-foot-5, 360-pound frame, the gunman came around the corner of the truck, pointed his rifle directly at Tommy who vainly tried to reason with him.

“He said he wasn’t going to hurt me but was going to kill her,” Tommy recalled. As the gunman reloaded his rifle, Pauline tried to run across the street and was shot in the leg. While Tommy called 9-1-1 a third time, now pleading for an ambulance, the gunman saw he was out of bullets and began stomping and kicking his bleeding victim. Then he drove off, yelling that he was going to get more bullets to inflict more harm.

Tommy ran to Pauline’s side, pulled off his belt and applied a tourniquet to her right leg to slow the bleeding, pleading for neighbors to help move her out of the ant hill into which she’d fallen. One man reluctantly emerged, helped move the woman, and went to Tommy’s truck to get a clean shirt and some ice and water. Tommy put the ice around the wound and used his XXXX-large shirt to apply a cold compress to her head.

The ambulance finally arrived; Tommy helped load Pauline onto a stretcher and place her in the vehicle, She was rushed to a local hospital, stabilized and airlifted to a larger hospital in Montgomery. Surgeons were able to save her badly damaged leg. The gunman was arrested at his home soon afterwards. The supervisor of the responding EMTs said “without a doubt, he saved her life.”

For his efforts, Tommy, a father of three grown children, was awarded the American Gas Association’s Meritorious Service Award,

Heroes come in all shapes, colors and sizes. But what we can never know until that moment arrives, is what our heart says. Tommy Swindle is a man with a very big heart.

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