When off-duty State Park Ranger and California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) member Robert Peek and his wife were awaken by a loud pop in their Idyllwild home at 2:30 a.m. Easter Sunday, he thought it was gunfire. "It sounded just like a gunshot, like the gun I use for work," said Peek. But suddenly he noticed a huge glow in his bedroom. A look outside and he saw flames, 20 feet high, shooting up from his neighbor's home across the street.
A quick glance at his neighbor's driveway told Peek all he needed to know. Neighbor Paul Colucci was home, likely asleep and unaware of the fast moving, life-threatening danger.
"What happened next, likely saved Colucci's life," said CSLEA President Alan Barcelona. "Peek ran to his neighbor's rescue. He raced around to the back of the fiery home where he believed Colucci would be sleeping. It's not hard to be proud of our CSLEA members who are all public safety professionals, but when you hear something like this, you have to send out a great big, special, thank you. "
The off-duty state park ranger jumped over the rail of the back deck to the back bedroom. "He was inside, still asleep, I think," said Peek. "I yelled, 'open the door.' He kept saying, 'what? what? what?' He was coughing."
Peek yelled to Colucci to move away from the door and then busted through, which could not have been an easy task considering Colucci's mattress was against the door. Peek pulled his neighbor to safety as the fire continued to spread. But the off-duty ranger's job was not done. He entrusted the fire victim's care to his wife and raced to put out flames near the home's propane tank. "If that exploded it would have been like a bomb, a projectile," said Peek.
When firefighters arrived, they faced a three hour battle. Water pressure in the mountain community is weak and it took some time for water tenders to respond. Peek said when he finally returned to check on his neighbor, "He kept hugging me, hugging me and thanking me."
Peek offered his neighbor clothing and his guestroom. His neighbor accepted the clothing and opted for a pillow and blanket to wait in his only surviving possession, his car. The keys to the car were lost to the inferno.
Park Ranger Peek returned to his own home and went back to sleep for an hour before heading off to work at Mount San Jacinto State Park. "Obviously it wasn't just another day," said Ranger Peek. "I feel good about it. I went to work knowing he was okay."
Peek said nothing in the police academy or his five years as a state parks peace officer prepared him for the life-risking rescue. "We're first responders, we're trained for first aid and search and rescues but we know what we are getting into. This was instinct, I wasn't trained for this."
Another thing he wasn't prepared for was the lightening speed in which word travels these days. Unbeknownst to Peek, the story spread on news outlets' websites, on Facebook and on YouTube. His phone lit up with emails and text messages.
Still, Peek went about his day serving the state of California as a state park ranger, something he has proudly done for five years. Peek said he is finally living his dream. Upon high school graduation he set out to become a ranger, but while at Humboldt State, his father encouraged him to pursue a career in banking. At the age of 53, Peek decided it was time. He entered the academy and competed with a younger set, some half his age.
Unlike the race of the Easter morning fire rescue, it took some time for Peek to finally make his dream career come true. As for the rescue, Peek said he is no hero, he just did what he thought he had to.
"It was an act fast, instinct thing that I had to do," said Peek. "He (my neighbor) was the one asleep."
His neighbor's home appears to be destroyed. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Photo courtesy KABC-TV Los Angeles - view KABC report