Luck, Redemption and Doing the Right Thing

On Feb. 6, Deputy Hector Palomino was responding to a traffic accident when he became involved in an accident of his own--and a dozen Samaritans jumped in to help

When you first meet Hector Palomino, you might be struck by how young he looks. The Pima County Sheriff's deputy--who was recently promoted to detective--is tall and lanky, with a boyish face and smile.

Then there is the scar. It curves a half inch above his left eye, below his eyebrow.

It's still red--a reminder that Palomino, 27, is still healing.

He looks down at his right hand and points out the small group of scars in the middle of his thumb, where a set of pins once brought the bones back together. It still didn't heal right and needed more surgery, he explains, holding up his hand to show the difficulty he has bending and moving the thumb at the joint.

"This isn't really a problem," Palomino says, as he barely moves his thumb. "I think of it as lucky. ... I always remind myself that it could have been a lot worse."

It was a little more than three months ago--Feb. 6--that Palomino was in a car accident while on duty. That Wednesday afternoon, Palomino was responding to a report of a car accident with an injury at the intersection of Ajo Way and Kinney Road. He was driving in his patrol car westbound on Ajo when a pickup turned into his path.

The cars collided, sending the patrol car across the intersection at Ajo and La Cholla Boulevard, off the road and over a large boulder, causing the car to overturn.

The car caught on fire after it came to rest on the driver's side. Palomino was unconscious and trapped.

"I still think about what happened, and I kind of (imagine) myself in the car, sideways and on fire," Palomino says. "I think once in a while about what would have happened if I didn't get out. The fire would have gotten to me, and I would have burned inside the car."

If not for luck, and 12 passers-by, Palomino wouldn't be here to enjoy the life he's carved out with his wife and their three young daughters.

Palomino calls it luck. Others use words and phrases like fate, or karma, or divine intervention, or even getting up on the right side of the bed.

Whatever you want to call it, thankfully, Palomino wasn't alone. What took place next has a name in Latin: recte age. Doing what is right and just.

The Tucson Weekly talked to several people who helped Palomino that day, and nobody ever says that they paused to ask themselves if jumping in to help Palomino was the right thing to do.

That's not to say that everyone's stories are the same. For example, at least three people recall that they were the first on the scene. But who cares? What matters is that Palomino is alive and well.

Gilbert Limbres was driving westbound on Ajo and pulled to the side of the road when he saw and heard the patrol car approaching.

"I was driving behind the officer, and about 100 yards later, the truck cut him off," Limbres says. "I didn't think; I immediately parked my car, and broke out the back (patrol car) window with a rock."

The divider that separates the front and back seats in all patrol cars prevented Limbres and others from being able to immediately get to Palomino.

"Another man came from nowhere and broke the front passenger-side window, but he couldn't get to him," Limbres recalls, noting that radio and safety equipment was also blocking access to Palomino. "People were saying, 'We need to wait,' but I said, 'We need to get him out now.'"

At this point, about six people surrounded the car, while six others focused on calling 911, or finding something to put out the fire and pry open the patrol-car doors, or checking on the elderly driver of the pickup (who was slightly injured, but conscious and safe; he was not charged with a crime, says Lt. Willie Belin).

Limbres says he started yelling to "push the freakin' car over." The six people worked together to flip the car back on its tires, while another person worked to temporarily contain the fire with a small fire extinguisher he got from a nearby school bus.

"That was it. Once it went to its side, that's when the fire grew even more," Limbres says. "At first, the door wouldn't open. Once we got it open, then we realized the seatbelt was stuck. 'Cut the freakin seat belt,' I said. Then there was a retired EMT there who knew what to do."

After Palomino was taken from the car, the front of the vehicle was consumed by fire.

Limbres says he couldn't sleep for a few days after the accident. He kept seeing Palomino's eyes, wide open, as the deputy slipped in and out of consciousness.

"He was so hurt, but he didn't know what was happening. The look on his face stayed with me," Limbres says, adding that he still thinks about Palomino almost everyday.

"No one has to really know," says Limbres, 40, "but it makes me feel good to know I did something good for once."

From 13 to 16, Limbres was in and out of juvenile hall 18 different times. At 16, he stole a car, and a judge sent Limbres to the California Youth Authority, which operates a correctional facility in San Luis Obispo County.

There, Limbres took high school courses and trained to be a wildfire-fighter while he served his time. (His training is one reason he says he knew that Palomino's patrol car wouldn't explode--like cars so often do in the movies--and that the deputy needed to be pulled out before the fire spread to the front of the car.) Limbres' remained in the California Youth Authority until 21, and for the next 15 years, he spent additional time and in and out of prison and on parole.

"It's been four years now since I've been clean and finished parole," Limbres says.

In March, the Pima County Sheriff's Department and the Board of Supervisors honored the 12 identified people who helped rescue Palomino. The county touted the group as heroes, and during a special ceremony, they were each given a certificate and the Sheriff's Citizen Medal (as well as season tickets to the Tucson Sidewinders).

Limbres says he had to go to California the day of the ceremony, but he later went to the sheriff's department to pick up the medal and certificate.

"I explained to them that this feels funny: All my life, I ran away from cops, and here, I was running to them."

Palomino says he doesn't remember much about what happened.

"I remember being on my back on the concrete somewhere out there and talking to another deputy. I don't remember what we were saying, but I remember seeing his mouth moving, and him kind of pointing to my thumb," Palomino recalls. "I was kind of blanking in and out. I remember being taken on the helicopter. That's basically all I remember."

Palomino was airlifted to University Medical Center, where doctors and nurses tended to his two broken orbitals--the bones in the face around the eyes--a cut above his left eye, two broken fingers, a broken knee cap and left ankle, and a broken jaw.

When his wife arrived at the hospital, Palomino says, she was shocked.

"At first, she was startled, and she was really scared when she found out (about the accident)," Palomino says. "(At the hospital), she was still scared, because she saw the cut on my face, and I remember seeing her, quiet, just standing there in the corner. "

After a short hospital stay, Palomino stayed home for a month and then returned to work, on light duty, in late March. He only returned to full duty on April 21.

The accident, he says, forced him to take stock in his life, to think about his wife and children, and the work he loves with the sheriff's department.

"I was in a comfortable point in my life, and this happened, and things got tossed upside down. I want to put this behind me, but I realize it takes time," Palomino says. "Coming to work doesn't feel the same, especially being off work for so long and being at home, getting all that time to think about what happened. And then being on light duty was frustrating. I wanted life to get back to normal."

Then he shrugs away those worries, saying they are meaningless in the scheme of things. He runs his fingers lightly over the scar above his eye.

"The accident could have been worse. I had a cut a half-inch from my eye. I could have been blind in one eye. I like to say I got lucky."

When he learned about his rescue, Palomino says he was most surprised that a whopping 12 people were involved in helping him, in one way or another.

"That amazed me," he says.

It's not easy for Palomino to talk about the accident. The quiet deputy seems uncomfortable with all of the attention and the fact that he was on the other side of a traffic accident.

"It was kind of strange for me. I am really grateful for all those people who pulled me out, but I feel weird about it, because instead of helping someone else, I was helped out," Palomino says.

While Limbres says the rescue offered him a bit of redemption, he and the other rescuers agree that being labeled as heroes makes them feel uneasy.

"We could have kept on driving," says Raul Rojas, a 48-year-old auto mechanic who was traveling westbound on Ajo Way with his mother and grandchildren the day of the accident. "Somebody needed help; I could feel it as we got to the intersection. There wasn't much of a choice."

Rojas was the one who used the fire extinguisher to contain the fire while the others flipped over the patrol car.

Doug McFarland was driving eastbound on Ajo Way when he saw the accident happen.

"I made an abrupt U-turn and called 911," McFarland says. "I'd help somebody else, no matter what. He was in trouble. He couldn't have gotten out himself. He was unconscious and strapped in a burning car."

McFarland, a 64-year-old heart-transplant recipient, says he thinks back about how easily everyone worked together in such a short period of time.

"In the end, everybody thanked each other," McFarland says. "We didn't expect anything or consider ourselves heroes. I look at it as a community thing. It needed to be done. I wouldn't stand by and let someone burn to death, that's for damn sure."

Adam Welch, one of the first rescuers on the scene who helped kick in the patrol-car windows and flip the car over, says that while he appreciates the recognition from the county, he wonders if all the fuss and accolades came because Palomino is in law enforcement.

"Something like that doesn't happen every day, I realize that. ... But I wondered: If (the accident victim) was an everyday citizen, would the attention be the same? Would you be writing this story?"

In a way, Palomino and his commander, Lt. Willie Belin, agree with Welch. Palomino recalls the Colorado Rockies-Los Angeles Dodgers spring training game where he and the 12 rescuers were recognized before the first pitch. When his name was called, everyone applauded.

"But I wanted to say, 'Don't applaud. Save your applause for them,'" he says, referring to his rescuers. "I don't go out looking for attention."

Belin says he will always be grateful to the people who saved one of his own--someone who has a promising career ahead of him with the sheriff's department.

"Professionally, yeah, he is a kid and is young in the field, but he is doing well, patrol-wise," Belin, 52, says. "When you see something like this happen, you want to put that protective cloak around him and then ease him back into normalcy. But he's been a trooper the whole way."

Belin says the events of Feb. 6 helped him appreciate the inherent goodness in people.

"We always hear about how bad things are, and how bad people are, but that really is a small percentage. That is what makes this job rewarding: the 99 percent of people who choose to do the right thing."

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