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Cpl. William Koppelman Jr., right, and a fellow Marine, Cpl. Brian Johnson, stand in the scorched remains of a porch where they rescued a man from a burning building on Feb. 17 in Yuma, Ariz., just before the back of the house exploded.

(Reprint from, March 1, 2007)

Local Marine a hero in Arizona
Pulled unconscious man from burning building before blast

Cpl. William Koppelman Jr. didn't plan on being a hero. The 22-year-old Marine - a Pasadena native stationed in Yuma, Ariz. - was just enjoying a Saturday afternoon on Feb. 17 and talking to a neighbor.

But after spotting smoke coming from an apartment complex across the street, the 2002 graduate of Northeast High School found himself climbing over roofs, jumping through flames and dragging an unconscious man to safety moments before the apartment blew up.

"It was just instinct," said Cpl. Koppelman, who's stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma but will be deployed to Iraq on March 8. "I don't consider myself a hero. I just did what anyone else would have done."

But Yuma Fire Department officials say that without the quick thinking and actions of Cpl. Koppelman and two other men, 40-year-old Gilberto Lopez Jr. might have died that day.

"Had these three rescuers not taken quick action, it is very likely that the victim's injuries would have been much more severe, if not immediately fatal," said Battalion Chief Rod Reed of the Yuma Fire Department.

Mayor Larry Nelson went a step further.

"I don't have any doubt he would have been killed," he said, calling the men heroes.

Mr. Nelson gave Cpl. Koppelman and his roommate, Cpl. Brian Johnson, certificates of commendation for public service yesterday. Mike Erfert, a spokesman for the fire department, said the third rescuer, Dale Crosser, will receive a separate citation from the department at a later date.

"I was just trying to keep Will out of trouble," joked Cpl. Johnson, a radio operator who's leaving for Iraq today.

He too down played their heroism.

"I don't feel all that special about it," he said.

Cpl. Koppelman, a switchboard operator who has been in Yuma since November 2005, said he initially thought the smoke was from a barbecue grill.

But then, when he saw the smoke get thicker and darker, he decided to go check it out while his neighbor called 911.

When he got closer, he found the entire apartment in flames and heard someone say a man was in the back.

Wanting to help, Cpl. Koppelman jumped onto the roof and looked into the back yard. There he saw Mr. Lopez unconscious on his patio.

"I yelled for help. He was a big guy," he said.

Before Cpl. Johnson and Mr. Crosser could get to him though - they had to jump several fences - Cpl. Koppelman jumped into the yard and grabbed Mr. Lopez.

"I didn't think about it," he said. "I wasn't really concerned about myself."

The other two men arrived shortly thereafter, and Cpl. Koppelman set about kicking down one of the fences.

"As soon as we got through the first fence, the back of the apartment blew," he said. "It was like something out of a movie."

The ball of fire shattered the patio doors and embedded glass into the fence 15 feet away, fire officials said. All of the furniture on the patio was melted or otherwise charred by the fire.

Cpl. Koppelman said he kicked down four fences while Cpl. Johnson and Mr. Crosser dragged Mr. Lopez behind him. Then he found an unlocked apartment and led them to the front of the building.

Cpl. Johnson said Mr. Lopez didn't look good.

"His eyes were dilated. He wouldn't respond," he said.

Margarita Lopez, Mr. Lopez's mother, said her son emerged from the fire relatively unscathed.

"If it wasn't for those Marines, he would have been terribly burned," she told Marine Corps officials. "Gilberto has just a little sunburn on his face, and some smoke inhalation."

She said her son suffered brain damage 11 years ago in a car accident and is now mentally disabled.

After hearing what happened, Cindy Slattery, Cpl. Koppelman's mother, said her son never thinks twice about helping people.

"I'm surprised not that he did it, but that he was there," said the Pasadena resident. "He's that type of person."