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Westover Airman helps rescue Massachusetts family from house fire

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. --  

A member of Westover’s Air Force family went above and beyond to serve his community when he saw a family in need of help.

On Nov. 8, Tech. Sgt. James Hawkins, a 439th Maintenance Squadron aircraft fuels system craftsman, was on his way home from a duty day at Westover when he noticed something out of the ordinary.

Hawkins first saw smoke coming from above a residential area in Millers Falls from a nearby intersection and thought it was strange since it was not a good area to have a backyard fire. As he got closer, he found people standing outside of a burning house.  

He said he heard somebody in the area ask if people were still inside.

Hawkins said he realized the people standing near the road may not be those who occupied the house. He parked his truck and quickly made his way towards the fire.

“The father came rolling out of the door with flames starting to come out of the door behind him,” said Hawkins.

Hawkins said the father quickly started screaming that his son hadn’t made it out of the house and was upstairs.

“That’s when my brain shut off and I just reacted,” said Hawkins.

Hawkins was assisted by Lee Laster, a retired Montague police officer and neighbor of the fire victims.

Hawkins said Laster and himself kicked in a door and quickly made their way upstairs to search for the son and any other remaining occupants in the house.

“We made it up the stairs and saw the mother and her 6-year-old son disoriented and trying to figure out what was going on,” said Hawkins. “We guided them down the stairs and were able to get them both out of the house.”

Hawkins said the father then exclaimed to them that his mother-in-law was inside on the first floor.

“We kicked in her door to try to get her out, the heavy black smoke was about 10 inches from the floor, and you could see it roll in when we fed it the air from opening the door.”

Hawkins said they got down on their stomachs and crawled about 10 feet into the room before it became too dangerous.

“I felt a pulsing pressure in my ears,” said Hawkins. “I told him we needed to get out of the house because the fire was too volatile and could flash over our head at any moment.”

Prior to enlisting in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, Hawkins served three years as a firefighter for the town of Gill, Massachusetts, and was able to fall back on some of his training to remain safe while attempting the fire rescue.

“It was just staying low and keeping out of the smoke, as well as trying to see anything we could in that very small window of light gray smoke,” said Hawkins.

It was later reported that Judy Verscot did not make it out of the fire and had passed away at the age of 66.

Several articles featured his actions following the event, but he wanted the focus to remain on the family. The surviving family members received assistance with shelter and other services.

“Its not about what I did, its just about the father, mother, and son being okay,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins was honored on Dec. 3 for his brave and selfless act by Westover’s 439th Airlift Wing commander, Col. Joseph Janik. Janik honored Hawkins at a commander’s call in front of hundreds of his fellow Westover Airmen.