NICEVILLE — On the November day when he got the call, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Macbeth was skeptical that he'd really be responding to a plane crash. Given some emergency callers' tendency to embellish, Macbeth was all but convinced that he would roll up to the scene near Ruckel Airport to find a perfectly intact airplane with a perfectly reasonable story behind it.
"I really didn't believe what it was," Macbeth said Thursday, the day after the Sheriff's Office announced that he had been awarded the office's Lifesaving Medal for his actions at what did, in fact, turn out to be a serious plane crash.
Macbeth was the first emergency responder to arrive at the crash site off Forest Road near the Rocky Bayou County Club's golf course early on the afternoon of Nov. 17. When he learned from two bystanders that two men were trapped in the wreckage of the tiny two-seat aircraft, which was upside-down and leaking fuel, Macbeth crawled beneath the wreckage to get the two occupants to safety.
He said Thursday that it was something he would have done whether he was a law enforcement officer or a private citizen.
"I'm just the kind of person who's going to help," Macbeth said modestly.
However, what Macbeth did went far beyond merely lending a helping hand. Here's how the Sheriff's Office described his actions in a news release announcing he'd been selected for the Lifesaving Medal:
"First on scene, Deputy Macbeth leapt into action, crawling under the plane’s wing trying to extract the occupants who were hanging upside down. Despite the hazards of leaking fuel and glass, Deputy Macbeth began cutting the left-side passenger free from the cockpit. More first responders arrived and began trying to extract the second passenger. This caused the plane to roll toward Deputy Macbeth, threatening to pin him under the plane. Putting his safety aside, Deputy Macbeth continued cutting the passenger from the plane. As the left-side passenger was freed and being removed, the plane again began to roll toward Deputy Macbeth and others assisting. Deputy Macbeth pushed up and held the aircraft until both passengers were safely removed."
Macbeth added some details Thursday. When he arrived and noticed the plane was leaking fuel, Macbeth noted that one of the bystanders had brought a fire extinguisher to the scene in case the small plane caught fire. Nonetheless, Macbeth didn't hesitate to crawl amid the wreckage.
"I told them, 'If the plane goes up (in flames), just hit it (with the fire extinguisher)," Macbeth said.
Macbeth said he did not know how long he worked to free the two passengers.
"It felt like forever," he said.
The plane was carrying 38-year-old James Dupin, a Niceville flight instructor who died later from injuries he suffered, and 51-year-old Dr. Rafael Mollega, a Niceville eye doctor who eventually recovered from his injuries. A preliminary report from that National Transportation Safety Board indicated the plane had experienced mechanical trouble on another flight two hours before the fatal crash.
The 31-year-old Macbeth, a longtime resident of the area, has been in law enforcement for almost five years, and has been an Okaloosa County deputy for a year and a half.
He ranks the plane crash "in the top five" of incidents to which he has responded, and said it is "definitely the most interesting" call he has taken. It got a little more interesting afterward, he said, when he learned from a fellow deputy that aircraft fuel is highly flammable.
Macbeth said he was "a little bit surprised" to learn he had earned the Lifesaving Medal.
"My corporal had told me he was putting me in for it," he confessed.
Although Macbeth's father is a military officer and has an uncle with the Los Angeles Police Department, he said it wasn't any family connection that drew him to police work.
"I've just always been drawn to things where you're part of a brotherhood," he said.
Macbeth added that he was always intrigued as a youngster whenever he heard a police siren.
"I wondered, 'Where are they going? What are they doing?' " he said.
According to the Sheriff's Office, the Lifesaving Medal "may be presented to any member of the agency who intervenes and takes substantial action in a situation where another’s life is in impending peril and the action of the member directly abates the peril to another’s life."