MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- “If they would have acted a second slower, they all would have been fried,” said Robert Hunter, after witnessing an unparalleled act of heroism shown by two communications Marines from Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, Feb. 17 at the Adobe Casitas apartments in Yuma where he is the maintenance supervisor.
Cpl. William M. Koppelman Jr., switchboard operator with Headquarters and Service Company, MWSS-371, was out on the landing of his apartment talking to a neighbor when he noticed smoke billowing from the adjacent Adobe Casitas complex.
“We noticed the smoke and I thought it was somebody’s barbeque,” said Richard Remington, Koppelman’s neighbor. “By the time I went in to call 911, (Koppelman) was down the stairs and running towards the building.”
“I heard somebody say that there might be somebody still inside so I ran down to the end of the burning building and climbed up onto the roof to try to find a way in,” said Koppelman.
As he ran back along the rooftop, he saw Gilberto Lopez Jr., laying motionless on the ground where he had collapsed from smoke inhalation outside the back door to his apartment less than a body length from the roaring fire within. Smoke rolled out both sides of the apartment, and flames licked the eaves near the young Marines’ feet.
The 5 foot, 9 inch, 160 pound Koppelman yelled, “We’ve got a guy back here!”
He then leaped from the roof, landing in the backyard where the 40-year-old man lay unconscious. Heat and acrid smoke filled the small courtyard, intensifying by the second.
While Koppelman was searching from the rooftops, his roommate, Cpl. Brian G. Johnson, radio operator with H&S Company, MWSS-371, heard the commotion outside, and stepped out to see what was happening.
“I heard somebody yell, ‘call 9-1-1,’ so I ran outside to find (Koppelman),” said Johnson.
Once the Santaquin, Utah, native realized what was going on, he ran around the other side of the Adobe Casitas building and heard Koppelman calling for help through the smoke and crackling fire.
“I had to jump over a few walls to find him, but it was pretty quick,” said Johnson. “At least we didn’t have to check for booby traps.”
During his pre-deployment training, jumping over walls in an urban environment is a practiced skill, including checking for traps.
“I never thought I would have to use wall climbing skills again, but I guess I did,” said Johnson.
The 5 foot, 7 inch tall Johnson scaled brick walls six-feet high, the last one hot from the fire’s wrath. Seconds after entering the courtyard, they realized they would not be able to lift the still unconscious Lopez’ 200-pounds of dead weight over the intensely hot bricks.
“What happened next was like something out of a movie,” said Hunter, describing the split second life saving actions. “(Koppleman) and (Johnson) and another guy picked up Lopez. Koppleman kicked through a fence in the backyard and the trio pulled (Lopez) through the fence. A second later, the sliding glass door exploded out, and a big flame forced me back out into the pool area.”
The explosion blew shards of glass 15 feet across the patio where they buried themselves in the wooden fence. The ensuing burst of flame flash-melted patio furniture 10 feet away and liquidated a satellite dish near the spot where Koppleman stood on the roof moments before. The fire from the explosion scorched the wooden fence from across the patio. Heat from the fire engulfed the patio area, consuming all materials within.
Koppelman continued to kick through fence after fence until the group could find an unlocked door to get through to the parking lot.
“All I could hear was ‘Rob, sorry for kicking down your new fence!’ every time they went through another one,” said Hunter. “I put those fences together with hot staples, the kind with glue on them, so they were pretty sturdy.”
“Once they got (Lopez) out to the parking lot, the two Marines stayed with him until EMS arrived,” Hunter said.
On-site medical treatment was provided by the Yuma Fire Department, then Lopez was rushed to Yuma Regional Medical Center. Lopez was later airlifted to the Maricopa Burn Center in Phoenix.
“I am so grateful that those Marines took him out,” said Margarita Lopez, the victim’s mother. “They were so brave. They could have gotten hurt, they could have been killed!”
Margarita Lopez arrived on the scene after the rescue took place, and was able to hug and thank her son’s rescuers.
“If it wasn’t for those Marines, he would have been terribly burned,” she said. “Gilberto has just a little sunburn on his face, and some smoke inhalation.”
He is still being treated in Phoenix, but is recovering well, she said.
A car accident 11 years ago left Lopez with brain damage. He had come a long way and was now able to walk with a slight limp, but could ride a bike again and recently earned his driver’s license back.
“He was still a little weak on his right side, with effects much like a stroke victim,” said Margarita. “He just bought a computer and was beginning to start a business. I just can’t believe it -- that fire would have gotten him.”
Koppelman, a Baltimore native, doesn’t think he is a hero.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, it’s just something that anybody else would have done,” he said.