Celebrations: CHP officer puts it all on the line to save lives

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This story is part of our special coverage on unsung heroes of Sonoma County. To see more stories, click here.

The call came in near the end of CHP Sgt. Jason Bahlman’s shift in May: An erratic driver apparently under the influence was being pursued in the northbound lanes of Highway 101.

Officers set up spikes on the highway in north Petaluma to pop the driver’s tires and prepared to arrest the woman. But she kept her foot on the gas as her tires shredded.

“She was just driving erratic from side to side,” Bahlman, 40, said in a phone interview.

“She was making such serpentine movements across the freeway lane. It didn’t seem that it was because of the loss of tire tread. It just seemed more that she was physically incapable of safely operating that vehicle.”

Finally, as the driver tried to get her car up the Cotati Grade, it came to a halt. But still, the woman wouldn’t release the gas pedal. A plume of sparks flew off her axle as Bahlman and other officers approached the car.

That’s when the situation became much more complicated and potentially tragic.

“As we are trying to get her out of the car, all of a sudden the right rear engine compartment just ignites and bursts into flames,” Bahlman said.

“At that point I only had one option. I re-holstered my gun and walked up to the car on the driver side. I felt it was more of a necessity to remove the driver, that the driver was not going to get out on her own.

“There was no hesitation on my part. That’s when, all of a sudden, I could see a child in the backseat just sit up,” he said.

There were two girls in the back seat, ages 1 and 5.

“I’ve seen plenty of car fires in my career, and it doesn’t take long (for the car to explode). There’s that element of the unknown with a car fire. You never know. Do I have 10 seconds, do I have 20 seconds?”

But that didn’t stop Bahlman from risking his life to save others. He broke the car window to pull out the girls.

“It wasn’t until I opened the door that her daughter sat up from lying down in the back seat, and then I could see there was a second child. At that point I’m already there, so I was not leaving that car without its occupants.

“The other officer was able to quickly unlatch the child (from the car seat), and as soon as he had the child in his hands, I pulled him by his gun belt and his shoulder out of the vehicle.”

CHP officers are trained to put their safety first, but there are moments when they instinctively rush in, especially when the lives of children are at stake.

“That’s the reality of our jobs,” Bahlman said. “It’s in our DNA as police officers that we are going to act very quickly on something like that.

“There’s an extreme level of the unknown and uncertainty in every encounter. Officer safety is what we live by, but there come times when we have to put ourselves out there and act without hesitation to save people’s lives. That’s what we’re here for,” he said.

The father of a 5-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, Bahlman said it’s his responsibility to monitor his own safety, adding that he felt blessed to be at that scene to save other children.

Police officers “have that special character trait, just caring for one another and wanting to do the right things,” he said.

“We don’t know these people. We don’t know their names, we don’t know anything about them or the color of their skin or their gender, where they’re from or what they’ve done, what they’ve been through,” Bahlman added.

“But you have to react to a situation like this. We’re just acting on our training and our instincts, and we’re out there to save lives. That’s ultimately what it’s about.”

This story is part of our special coverage on unsung heroes of Sonoma County. To see more stories, click here.

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