CLINTON — Officer Phil DiLuca was off duty last June when he responded to a call that would eventually lead to him earning the designation of hero.

It had been a quiet night for the 25-year-old Clinton police officer. He made a few traffic stops and just one arrest. Around midnight, it was time to head home.

But as he was driving his truck out of town, he heard a report of a fire at a manufactured home on Gold Street over his scanner and immediately turned around.

Just the week before DiLuca had responded to a fire in the same community and knew how quickly the flames could spread.

“We had just had a trailer go up like a candle a week before,” DiLuca said in an interview Friday afternoon. “I knew that with these old trailers they’re just bonfires in waiting.”

As he drove to the home, he could see smoke rising into the air from a mile away. He wouldn’t have much time.

Neighbors from around the community had started to gather around the burning trailer, watching as flames leapt out nearly 8 feet from the home, when DiLuca got there. He was the very first responder to arrive.

Clinton police Officer Phil DiLuca was honored with the Red Cross Public Service Real Heroes Award on Tuesday for saving the life of Shawn Skehan from a fire that destroyed his home. Contributed photo from American Red Cross

The consensus among the bystanders on whether the resident of the home, Shawn Skehan, was still inside was mixed. Some neighbors were using shovels to bang on the doors and windows to alert Skehan in case he was home. Others doubted he could still be in there because of the massive amount of smoke pouring out of the trailer.

But Mamie Dias, who lives across the street from Skehan, was convinced that Skehan was home and most likely asleep.

She was familiar with Skehan’s routine of eating and going right to sleep upon arriving home from work.

“He’s in there. Somebody’s got to go through that smoke to get him out,” Dias recalled telling DiLuca during an interview Friday. “I know he’s in there.”

At that point, Dias said DiLuca jumped right into action.

“I looked into the window and saw billowing, black smoke,” DiLuca said. Although he had dealt with fires during his two-year tenure as an officer, DiLuca said it wasn’t something officers really receive training for at the academy. But luckily, DiLuca was trained for this moment.

The four years he spent as a state ranger in Massachusetts gave him a good understanding of fire science. So when he put his face up to the door to gauge how advanced the fire had become, he knew he had just a few minutes to act.

“My skin wasn’t melting when I held it up to the door so I knew I had a little bit of time.”

DiLuca first tried breaking down the front door to the trailer, but it wouldn’t give. He then ran to the back door and was able to kick it in. The heat and smoke he released caused the officer to fall to his knees.

“It was a shock at first,” he said. “I kind of let the hot box out when I opened the door.”

But on the ground he realized he was able to breathe without inhaling the thick smoke. He began crawling on the floor, searching the rooms.

“I sucked the bits of oxygen I could and started screaming for Shawn.”

Skehan’s bedroom was the last place DiLuca searched for the missing resident.

“When I opened the door, there was Shawn: asleep in bed, snug as a bug.”

DiLuca shook Skehan awake and told him to grab some clothes, the house was on fire.

As Skehan remembers it, when he woke up, he thought it was a dream. The smell of smoke, the flames outside his door, a stranger in his home: It was all very bizarre.

“I looked at him like he had two heads,” Skehan recalled Friday from his new home. “I grabbed some clothes and he pushed me out the door. And then I watched my house burn.”

It was that unflinching show of courage that brought DiLuca and Skehan back together in Lewiston Tuesday for the Red Cross Real Heroes Breakfast. Skehan presented DiLuca with the award that annually goes to a public servant who performs “extraordinary acts” to help people in need.

DiLuca said it was an incredible honor, but he said that his colleagues on the force would have done the same thing if they were put in that situation.

“It’s an important event so that people can become aware of the good deeds that everyone in today’s society — whether you’re a private citizen or a public servant — what good things people do to make a difference in people’s lives.”

During his acceptance speech Tuesday, he told those in attendance about a humbling incident the other day.

DiLuca pulled a man over for a traffic violation, and while he was going through the routine of license, registration and so on, the man asked, “Are you the officer who saved my dad?”

As it turned out, he was.

“I didn’t even know Shawn had a son,” he said Friday. “He just asked me for a handshake … (Shawn) really could have died in there.”

Looking back, DiLuca doesn’t know if it was the wisest decision to run into a burning trailer, but he knows he made the right choice because it had a good outcome.

“It was a split second. You just have to go with what your gut tells you,” he said.

Since the fire, which was caused by electrical problems with a ceiling fan, DiLuca and Skehan have become friends and see each other from time to time.

DiLuca kept up with Skehan while he spent the next several months living out of a box-like camper in his backyard, which he noted must have been a challenge for someone of Skehan’s stature — towering over most at 6 feet 11 inches — but Skehan never complained. Skehan was finally able to move into his new trailer in November. This one isn’t as spacious as the one that was destroyed in the fire, but Skehan looks on the bright side.

“I have space to build a porch … have a barbecue,” he said.

Skehan recognizes that if it weren’t for DiLuca he likely wouldn’t be alive today, but he credits several others for their part in his rescue.

He said the neighbor who saw the fire and called 911 was a hero. He said Dias, who convinced DiLuca that Skehan was inside the trailer, deserves a medal.

“I have a lot of heroes,” he said.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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