Police risked their lives to rescue downed officers

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Paul Donaldson was asleep when the firing started shortly after 7 a.m., just a few hundred yards away from his home in Stanton Heights.

"My wife woke me up and said, 'Paul, someone is shooting,' " the Pittsburgh deputy police chief said yesterday. He heard heavy small-arms fire and, "I responded."

By the time he got on the scene on Fairfield Street about 7:10 a.m., he said, two or three other officers were there, but they couldn't approach the house because of the gunfire coming from inside. He joined them down the street from the house, where they could see three wounded officers who had responded to a domestic-violence call and a fourth who had come to their aid.

Officer Paul Sciullo II was lying in the doorway of the home. Officer Stephen Mayhle was on the lawn, near a bush by the front door.

Officer Eric Kelly, who had broadcast on his radio that officers were down, was in the street. Officer Timothy McManaway was beside him, trying to give him cover.

"Officer McManaway was yelling, 'He needs help! We got to get him out of here!'" said Chief Donaldson. Officer McManaway, who arrived on the scene about two minutes after the three officers were shot, also ended up being wounded, taking a bullet in the hand as he tried to pull Officer Kelly to safety.

Chief Donaldson came up with a plan: Rig the windows of a police transport wagon with bulletproof vests to protect the driver, and have other officers pull the wounded men into the back of the vehicle.

He asked for five volunteers. He said he could have gotten whatever number he wanted.

They drove down the street, and the officers in back jumped out -- putting themselves directly in the line of fire -- and lifted Officer Kelly and Officer McManaway inside.

"It's fortunate he didn't fire on us during the extraction," he said. "It could have been worse."

They were unable to go into the yard to get Officers Sciullo and Mayhle.

Scott Bisceglia, who lives a block away at the corner of Antoinette and Oglethorpe streets, said he saw medics pull Officer Kelly from the wagon and transfer him to an ambulance. The wounded officer was shirtless and breathing from an oxygen mask.

"The medics rushed [Officer Kelly] to the hospital, they tried to save him, but he was pronounced about 40 minutes later," said Chief Donaldson.

He said it was clear that the shooter, later identified as Richard Poplawski, 22, was lying in wait for the officers.

Chief Donaldson said calls for domestic violence are both the most common and among the most dangerous for police officers.

"We get thousands and thousands of calls like this every year. How could these officers have known what was going to happen? They may have been talking as they walked to the house, saying, 'Aw, we've been here before. Maybe him and his mother are fighting again.' Then 'Boom!'"

The chief called it "the most tragic and horrible day in my career."

"I'm deeply saddened by this. What can you say? These young officers, two of them just starting their careers. It tears at your heart."

Jerome L. Sherman contributed to this report. Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.


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