First responders in Poconos tell stories of holidays on duty

2021-12-27 06:52:16 By : Ms. Tina Ye

Shawn Williams spent his Christmas tracking a killer.

He waited undercover near Harrisburg, eyes locked on a map that ping-ed with new coordinates as Harold Haulman III drove closer to Pennsylvania. Haulman was suspected of killing a 26-year-old woman in Luzerne County less than a month earlier, and a host of police officers waited to arrest him. 

An hour passed, then another. Williams watched the clock. 

He thought about his sons, one home from college and the other visiting from New Jersey with his fiancé. He thought about the 30 or so other officers crammed into surveillance cars across Harrisburg and wondered if they'd gone through the same misery of telling their loved ones that morning: "I have to leave."

Williams called his wife throughout the day and resisted the urge to promise he'd see her soon. He didn't know when the manhunt would end. She knew better than to ask.

She'd watched him leave for years as a corporal with the Pennsylvania State Police, pulled to the scenes of garish crimes in and around the Poconos: the Mother's Day weekend when a woman killed three of her children, her boyfriend and her dog before she committed suicide; the Father’s Day when a man killed his father beneath a plaque on the wall that said “World’s Best Dad.”

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Time with family isn't guaranteed. It's a fact that's been thrown into sharp relief again this holiday season as the country enters the most devastating months of the pandemic, and one first responders have had to reconcile since the dawn of public servitude.

"It's very difficult when you have little kids, and you tell your wife: 'You got to figure it out for the next five days,'" Williams said. "I have to focus on my job because, you know, this killer's running loose, and we're the people responsible for catching them."

He called his family a final time, 15 hours after he'd left home Christmas day. Haulman wasn't in custody yet, but a new set of detectives would take their place. He and the 30 other officers were coming home at last. 

"They're like, 'Well, guess what?'" Williams said. "'Everything's over. Your son's going back to New Jersey tomorrow, and you have missed out on another life opportunity.'"

The scene officer Raymond Kuehner drove up to was chaotic and confused.

A Ford Explorer lay upside down with its headlights still on, rain collecting in the undercarriage. Christmas presents spilled onto the road behind it, and a sound like rushing water hissed somewhere in the dark.

The air smelled wrong. Kuehner swept his flashlight over the road and saw a massive, gaping crater there. A severed pipe gushed at the bottom.

“That's not water,” the officer said. “That's gas.”

A natural gas line buried beneath the asphalt ruptured the exact moment 33-year-old Luis Mercado drove over it Christmas Eve night. The force of the explosion flipped the car and left a knee-deep hole in the middle of Lower Swiftwater Road.

A man stood in the rain and gestured wildly to the car, still on the phone with 9-1-1. He screamed: “There’s people trapped inside!”

He'd managed to shimmy out of the front passenger seat, but the rest of his family—a young couple from New York and their 2-year-old son—were still stuck. Kuehner ran to the back-passenger window and aimed his flashlight inside.

A toddler stared back, strung upside down in his car seat. He watched with his hands clasped across his chest while Kuehner pulled and pried at the door.

"He didn't cry, didn't yell," the officer said. "He just sat there. Calm as can be."

Suspended between the roof and the middle row of the Explorer, the child's mother coughed. She was conscious and trying to speak but had been hurt badly in the accident, Kuehner said. The boy’s father called her name from the driver’s seat and pleaded with her to hold on.

She didn’t. The family was cut from their seatbelts and driven to Lehigh Valley Hospital Pocono, where the mother died shortly after. The 2-year-old was unhurt.

It’s among the worst calls Kuehner has responded to, the officer said. He didn’t realize it was Christmas until everyone had been cleared from the scene.

“We’re sitting back, and we see these presents strewn out all over the road,” Kuehner said. They were wrapped and soaking, a baby stroller among the heap. “It was eerie, a very eerie feeling.”

The officer returned home around 7 a.m., his own children still asleep in bed.

“I just went home, and I hugged them,” he said. “Just thankful that they still have me in their family all together for that day.”

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Joe Totero settled into bed just as the fire scanner on his nightstand began to chirp. The sound it makes is like two notes on an electric piano— one high and one low played in quick succession, and then replaced by the dispatcher's voice. Each combination of tones signals to a fire or EMS unit that its services are needed.

"Instead of just the one tone for one department going off, I hear about three, four, five, six different tones," Totero said. "All different departments."

Either the departments were understaffed, or something big was going on.

It was a combination of both. Christmas was two days away, so agencies throughout the area were light on volunteers, Totero said. And the fire tearing through a Stroud Township home was massive.

Plumes of black smoke billowed out its windows by the time Totero and the rest of the East Stroudsburg Fire Company arrived. A firefighter and a little boy were trapped inside.

Totero tucked a hose under his arm, clambered up a ladder and stepped through a broken bedroom window. The trapped firefighter was in there, disoriented and running out of oxygen. Totero grabbed him and pointed out the window. 

 "Follow the hose out the window," he said.

The firefighter nodded and moved slowly through the room, holding onto the hose like a life line. On the way out, he called over his shoulder: "The boy's in here somewhere."

Totero had been inside for less than a minute at that point, but already the room had grown infinitely hotter. Black smoke filled the space and made it impossible to see.

"You can't see your hand in front of your face, that's how smoky it was," he said. "It was nearing flashover conditions."

Flashover: That's when everything in the room bursts into flames.

Superheated gases from the smoke collect at the ceiling and ignite everything within reach. He'd been caught in a flashover once before and could tell that it was coming soon. He grabbed around in the dark for the little boy.

An airhorn sounded then, and another firefighter screamed in the window: Totero needed to get out, immediately. He followed the hose back to the window just like the firefighter before him and dove headfirst out of the window.

The flashover ignited behind him. It consumed everything in the room, including the body of the little boy. He'd been concealed beneath a door rescuers kicked down to get inside.

His grandfather and sister had managed to flee, but the boy hid in his room once the fire began, Totero said—probably afraid he'd get in trouble for starting it. He'd been playing with matches that evening.

Totero stood somewhere near the house and took off his equipment slowly. He talked to his partner, about what, he can't remember now. He does remember the moment he saw rescuers carry a stretcher into the home.

"I literally stopped in my tracks," Totero said. "They found the boy. I can't remember if I heard the mother screaming, because everybody was screaming at that time."

Some yelling orders and others just yelling.

"I already knew the boy was gone. He was gone before we even got dispatched, that's how bad the fire was when we arrived," Totero said. "Hopefully it was quick."

For Williams, the line between personal and professional has always been blurred. He'd mull over the details of a homicide case during dinner and step away from his children's football practice to check emails by the sideline.

"Your phone's going off in the middle of the night, and your wife's giving you a stare because she knows what's going on," Williams said. He was a criminal investigator for 21 years and police officer for five before that.

"It's a very unpredictable lifestyle. You've got to be ready to pack a bag, throw it in your car and not see your family for five days."

It's happened so many times that, by his final year with the state police, Williams could recall only one holiday that remained untouched by a major incident: Christmas. He liked to brag about it.

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A 2 a.m. call from the FBI on Dec. 25, 2020, ended the streak. Haulman, the suspected serial killer from Luzerne County, had been located in Michigan, and he was on his way back to Pennsylvania. Williams and a team of officers would need to stake out his arrival and take him into custody.

It was a promising development to a case Williams spent the better part of the month investigating, but a cause for guilt, too. 

"You start getting involved in it, and you're excited," Williams said. "But you're letting your whole family down at the same time."

It takes a degree of grit, urgency and empathy to reconcile, both on the part of Williams and his family.

"If my own family member was missing, I can't imagine a police officer telling me, 'Well, you know, it's Christmas. We're gonna wait till the next day,'" Williams said. "We don't have that luxury. You work 15 hours on Christmas Day because somebody's got to."

The sacrifice doesn't compare to the grief of those they're called to serve, said Pocono Mountain Regional Police chief Chris Wagner. If he or his officers are leaving home on Christmas, it's because somebody else has suffered greatly.

"I try to compartmentalize it, because there's a bigger picture here," he said. "It's inconvenient, and it's not always the most family friendly profession—but there's a bigger picture to why we do it."

It's why Totero, who is now assistant chief of the East Stroudsburg Fire Department, goes to sleep with the volume on his scanner turned up. It's why Kuehner keeps putting on his uniform. The smile that spreads across his daughter's face when she sees it doesn't hurt either.

"She likes knowing that I'm out there helping people," Kuehner said. "Maybe that's why I continue to do the job."

Hannah Phillips is the public safety reporter at Pocono Record. Reach her at