After breaking through the window of a burning vehicle on Highway 101 near Cotati on midnight Friday, a CHP officer realized there were two children in the back seat.
CHP Officer Matthew Barawet and Sgt. Jason Bahlman quickly switched gears. They had been cautiously approaching a driver who had led officers on a 25-mile pursuit for unknown reasons. Then they were moving fast to rescue her daughters, ages one and five, from the burning car, Santa Rosa-area CHP Sgt. Andrew Henkens said.
Rancho Adobe Battalion Chief Herb Wandel credited the two officers with getting the children out of the car before it was reduced to a charred metal frame by the gasoline-fueled fire.
“If they had not pulled them out, it would have been tragic,” Wandel said.
They also rescued the driver — later identified as Laura Jones, 24, of Rohnert Park — who didn’t follow officers’ orders and appeared to be under the influence of drugs, most likely a kind of stimulant like methamphetamine, said CHP Sgt. Philip Ross, with the Marin County bureau.
Jones was arrested on suspicion of felony evading police with disregard for safety as well as two misdemeanor charges, DUI driving and child endangerment. She remained in custody Saturday morning at the Marin County Jail on $35,000 bail, jail records show.
The pursuit began at about 11:40 p.m. Friday on northbound Highway 101 in San Rafael when an officer tried to stop Jones for speeding and tailgating, Ross said. But Jones continued north, erratically moving between lanes at 50 to 70 mph, he said.
As the pursuit headed toward Sonoma County, Santa Rosa CHP officers prepared to stop the driver with three spike strips thrown across the highway between East Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard North, Henkens said.
Jones drove over the spike strips — as did several other vehicles that got through before the CHP shut down the roadway — and the spikes flattened her tires. But she kept going, and the vehicle finally came to a stop in the road near Railroad Avenue on the Cotati grade.
Jones still didn’t stop trying to drive away, revving the engine and spinning the rims on asphalt, Ross said. The wheel-to-road friction created a revolving rooster tail of sparks that set fire to the car, and the flames were further fueled by gasoline.
The officers were approaching the vehicle cautiously, not knowing Jones’ motivations, and that’s when one of the men broke a back window and saw the children.
“It was a surprise to have two small children in this vehicle with this person,” Wandel said. “The officers had to change their response, go from detaining a suspect with unknown reasons to flee to saving these kids.”
Wandel said the children didn’t have visible injuries and a Petaluma ambulance crew took them to a hospital as a precaution. Authorities also alerted Child Protective Services.
Firefighters extinguished the fire and cleaned up a small gasoline spill, and they were on scene until about 2 a.m.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.