Sgt. Darren Watkins was starting a shift in his civilian job as a sheriff’s deputy in Wagoner County, Oklahoma, on Feb. 29 after leaving a daddy-daughter dance with his youngest child.
Things started slowly, as they often do. The Oklahoma Army National Guardsman with 2120th Engineer Battalion, 90th Troop Command answered some routine calls and filled out paperwork that night.
Then, at about 4 a.m., as he was wrapping his shift, Watkins was called to a fire in a vacant house. When he arrived, he realized that a neighboring house was also aflame, and there was someone trapped inside.
A man in the driveway alerted Watkins that an elderly widow was in the house and that he couldn’t wake her to get her out. Watkins told the man to seek safety and radioed the 911 dispatch to tell them he was going to try and get inside the home.
“I knew she was in there, and I knew she needed to get out,” Watkins said in an Army statement. “I really wasn’t thinking of anything else.”
Watkins rushed into the home and found that the woman had gone into her kitchen in an attempt to get to her car in the garage. However, a gasoline-filled car in the midst of a house fire poses a unique set of risks.
“I had to actually hold the door closed to where she couldn’t open it and pull her away from the door,” Watkins said in a Guard video about the event. “The firefighters later said if she would have opened the door the fire in the garage would have flashed into the living room and possibly burned both of us.”
The woman was panicking about her four dogs as Watkins tried to get her out of the home. He had to wrap his arms around her and steer her to the exit.
He, the woman who was not identified in the Army statement, and the four dogs luckily made it to safety.
"I have had some crazy calls in the past, but this was probably the craziest with the best outcome," Watkins said. "She did lose her house, but we were able to get her out of the residence with her dogs."
Likely, with littler time to spare.
“As we walked a safe distance away, we heard the garage explode behind us,” Watkins said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.