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11-24-2004, 18:57
Deputy Lauded As Hero Copes With Failed Rescue

AURORA - "Where? Where?" Denver County sheriff's Deputy George Gatchis shouted through the roiling black smoke and raging flames as he desperately tried to find a baby boy.

Laresha King, frantic and distraught, screamed instructions to him, trying to direct him to the 3-month-old boy inside her blazing home. King operated a day care in the home and was responsible for four children Thursday morning.

Maybe 20 people were gathered outside the house at 2531 S. Genoa St., calling on their cell phones, crying, comforting each other as Marvin Paule, a neighbor, videotaped the gut-wrenching emotions of the rescue attempt.

The off-duty officer entered the house not once but twice, driven out by the dense smoke and chunks of falling ceiling.

"I didn't get the kid," said Gatchis, still wrung out and weary Thursday afternoon. "I'm not a hero."

Denver sheriff's Sgt. Darryle Brown disagreed.

"He went above and beyond the call of duty," said Brown, spokesman for the sheriff's office.

Gatchis, 32, said he was driving home about 9 a.m. after working the overnight shift at the Denver city jail.

He saw a column of smoke flaring above the tidy, landscaped subdivisions of new homes on the eastern edge of Aurora. Gatchis followed the smoke to its source, finding a garage engulfed in flames and a woman with three children fleeing the house.

He asked her if there was anyone else inside. She told him a baby boy was still in the house.

The Aurora Fire Department was on the way, but seconds counted.

"He immediately crawled into the house and he was feeling his way in and he couldn't see," Brown said. "He went deeper into the residence, but the smoke was more intense, so he went outside to get some air."

Gatchis estimated he was in the house maybe 20 seconds or maybe 30 seconds each time.

"Time stood still," he said. "I couldn't breathe and I had to come out, but I don't really know how long I was in the house."

Brown said he was told the fire was so hot that bystanders could hear the car in the garage beginning to buckle.

King couldn't explain the layout of the house to him, and Gatchis found himself blind in the black maze. "Blacker than a campfire times 1,000," he said.

Brown said bystanders said the flames "were outside the garage and the windows, and he went inside anyway. But he was overcome by the smoke and he had to get out before losing consciousness."

Gatchis, who has been a sheriff's deputy for more than three years, was treated at the Medical Center of Aurora South Campus and sent home.

Brown said he wasn't surprised that Gatchis put himself at risk to save a stranger's life.

"He's always been known as a professional, conscientious officer," Brown said. "This is not uncharacteristic for him to go out of his way to help somebody."

Gatchis will have some time off to deal with the incident, but Brown said he will be commended for his service.

"He did everything he could to locate this baby," Brown said.

Gatchis, who said he is single and has no children, wonders what more he could have done inside the inferno.

"I'm hurt that I wasn't able to do more than I did," the officer said. "My heart goes out to the mother. I wish her the best."