SAN JOSE (KPIX) — San Jose police officers say they were acting on their natural instincts and training when they dragged a man who was suffering from mental illness from his burning van.
Around 8 a.m. on July 9, the staff at One World Montessori School called 911 dispatchers to report a man shouting and throwing bottles in their parking lot at 1170 Foxworthy Avenue.
Officers Tim Wright and Greg Wharton arrived to find the man inside the van, which was emitting smoke. They ordered the 56-year-old to come out but he refused.
“And he heard us but he would not take the hands out of the van. In retrospect, I think he was starting a fire,” said Wright.
As the flames grew more intense, Officer Chris Perilli, who had recently arrived on scene, said there was only one option.
“At that point we made the decision that we had to go grab him or he was going to die in the fire,” said Perilli.
Images from the officers’ body cams show the man had lunged back in through the driver-side door, which was open.
Amid small explosions, smoke and flames, the three officers attempted to pull the man away from danger but he had hooked his arms around the tire and door frame and had “good leverage” against the officers.
“It was officer Wharton who made the decision, I think correctly, to use the taser to stun him, stun Mr. Huff, and then he let go,” said Wright.
The officers dragged the man, who weighed more than 230 pounds and was still resisting, to safety behind a patrol car several yards away, with seconds to spare.
“After we got him a little ways from the van, the van actually exploded and blew the roof back and blew all the windows out,” said Perilli.
The van contained propane tanks and other combustible materials. The man was transported to the hospital with burns to his arm and smoke inhalation and subjected to a 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation.
The officers say leaving the man inside the vehicle is “not what we do”.
“He didn’t want to stay in that van. It was his mental health condition that made him want to stay in that van. We have to get him out of there and get him the help that he deserves,” said Wright.
“I was just doing what I had to do at the time. I think any officer on the police department would’ve done the same thing,” said Perilli.