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‘It Was Literally a Matter of Minutes’

Thanks to Son’s Alert Actions, UMLPD Officer Helps Rescue Family of 8 from House Fire

UMLPD Officer Brian Ethier and his son Colby standing by the Merrimack River Photo by Ed Brennen
UMass Lowell Police Officer Brian Ethier credits his teenage son, Colby, for realizing that their neighbor's house was on fire. Ethier helped rescue eight family members.

08/25/2020
By Ed Brennen

Now in his ninth year with the UMass Lowell Police Department, Officer Brian Ethier has developed a pretty good instinct for when someone is in need of help.

That instinct seems to have rubbed off on Ethier’s 14-year-old son, Colby.

Just after midnight on August 7, Colby got up to get a drink of water from the kitchen of his family’s home in Tyngsboro, Mass. As he was going back to his room, he noticed a glare through an upstairs window coming from a neighbor’s property. 

“There was a small flame that almost looked like a bonfire, but the smoke looked weird,” says Colby, who decided to wake up and alert his mom, Amy. She promptly woke up her husband, who took one look and realized their neighbor’s two-story house was on fire. While his wife called 911, Ethier rushed over to help.

“As I ran around the corner to the front of their house, I heard them screaming,” says Ethier, who knew that five children — ages 1 to 8 — and three adults lived in the home. 
“As I ran around the corner to the front of their house, I heard them screaming.” -UMLPD Officer Brian Ethier

The raging fire had already overtaken the front and back doors of the house, so Ethier pulled the five children to safety through a first-floor window. He then helped two of the adults — the children’s grandparents — climb out the window.

But the third adult — an 81-year-old great-grandmother with mobility issues — was still trapped inside. Ethier and the grandfather smashed out the picture window on the front of the house but they still could not pull the woman out. Ethier realized they’d have to go inside.

“As we started to go into the house, there was an explosion that kicked us out,” Ethier says.

The explosion, which came from the garage, knocked the woman to the floor and filled the room with black smoke, making the rescue even more difficult. 
Tyngsboro firefighters battle a burning blaze Photo by Tyngsboro Police Department
Tyngsboro firefighters battle the two-alarm blaze after UMLPD Officer Brian Ethier helped pull the home's residents to safety.

“I was worried about him,” says Colby, who was watching his father’s rescue attempt along with his older sister, Megan. “You never think you’re going to see something like that.”

A few moments later, the Tyngsboro Fire Department arrived at the scene. A firefighter was able to enter the house and help get the woman through the window.

“It took everybody working together — four police officers, three firefighters and five or six neighbors — to get her out,” Ethier says of the great-grandmother, who was transported to Lowell General Hospital and treated for minor burns to her right arm and shoulder.

Ethier, who joined the UMLPD as a dispatcher in 2012 and became a patrolman in 2016, can remember responding to only one house fire while on duty (the UMLPD assists the Lowell Police Department with calls near campus).

“I was one of the first to get there, but it was nothing where we had to rescue anyone,” says Ethier, whose neighbor’s home was completely destroyed by the two-alarm fire.

“Looking back at it the next few days, seeing and smelling the remains … it was a pretty traumatic experience,” he says. 

Police Chief Randy Brashears says the department will recognize Ethier for his heroic actions later this year.

Ethier, however, deflects most of the credit to his son Colby for having the instinct to alert his mom when he thought something wasn’t right.

“There were other neighbors that thought it was a bonfire as well and didn’t actually say anything when it first started,” Ethier says. “One of the detectives told me that if (Colby) had waited to tell us even a minute later, they probably wouldn’t have gotten the woman out of the house. It was literally a matter of minutes.”

Colby, who plans to join the Air Force someday, begins his freshman year at Tyngsboro High School this fall. If he has to write a paper on what he did over summer vacation, this story will be hard to top.