FAIRMONT - As Fairmont police officer Chad Sanow received fresh body armor Thursday, he spoke publicly for the first time about last week's incident, when he was shot while responding to a house fire.
"I get a whole second life now," said Sanow, his voice catching. "When I was told the man who made my vest wanted to present the new one to me in person, I wasn't sure I was ready for that. But then I knew I wanted to meet the man who saved my life."
Recalling the evening of Oct. 26, Sanow said several times, "I was ambushed," and he credited his bullet-proof vest for saving his life.
Above left:?Fairmont police officer Chad Sanow displays the slug and the chest plate of the body armor he was wearing Oct. 26, when he was shot while responding to a house fire. He credits the vest for saving his life.
Above right: Sanow’s uniform shows a hole from a slug directly in the chest, between the buttons.
Garry Novak of First Choice Armor presented Sanow with the new vest, noting that when an officer needs a vest replaced following a shooting, it becomes a company priority.
Sanow displayed his "used" vest, the 1-ounce slug that hit him, his uniform with ragged holes and his radio, which also took a slug.
"It's one of the most emotional events we've ever gone through," said Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma. "We are fortunate and happy for the way things turned out ... I also want to highlight the enormous team approach that was taken from the moment the call came in, to being here today."
Sanow was responding to an already dangerous situation:?a house fire on Webster Street.
When Sanow, Fire Chief James Freeman and civilian Matt Van Watermulen arrived to help, their concern was to make sure everyone was safely out of the house. Instead, they were shot at by the resident, Michael Mathwig, who planned the entire thing as an ambush. Mathwig committed suicide shortly after firing at Sanow and Van Watermulen.
"The details are truly amazing," Brolsma said. "The windows were opened, the whole house was papered to make sure lots of responders were brought to the incident ... It was a very detailed plan."
Along with the two shotguns found, there were supplies of ammunition hidden throughout Mathwig's yard and the yards of neighbors.
As Sanow approached the burning house while receiving information from neighbor Van Watermulen, he heard the shots, and took a hit directly in the chest.
"It was like a Mack truck going at 70 miles an hour," Sanow described. "I took it straight on, and my body wrapped around it. I remember whirling around, facing westward, then I went down. Then I saw Matt going down, and I knew I had to protect him."
Freeman was at the scene but unaware shots were being fired until several minutes later. Sanow and Van Watermulen had managed to move out of the line of fire. Sanow never saw the shooter.
"He was in a neighbor's yard, and it was complete darkness," Sanow said. "You can't return fire if there's no target ... But I was able to get up, and ran and protected Matt and the fire chief."
He recalled hearing three shots when he went down, and later heard a fourth.
"Then I heard a lot of sirens," he said. "They were music to me. They told me help was on the way."
Meanwhile, the fire department faced the fire fueled by paper spread all over the house. There were gale-force winds that evening as well.
"We had no idea what we were getting into that night," Freeman said. "It was one massive, organized chaotic event ... It was extreme conditions with the wind and we didn't know if the house was set up so there'd be a second explosion, so we couldn't let anyone get too close."
Freeman credits police for helping firefighters be able to extinguish the fire while keeping damage to other houses at a minimum.
"I hope to never have to go through that again," Freeman said. "But I would knowing I have these guys to back me up."
Because Sanow is in top physical condition, he suffered only hard bruising.
"The doctor told me if I hadn't been in as good of shape, I could've had fractured and broken ribs, and taken a lot longer to heal ... I'm sore, but the vest did what it was supposed to do. I might have a little scar there. It will remind me to keep fighting for this community."
While Sanow was in uniform during the news conference Thursday, he is not back on duty.
"It all depends when the doctor says this has healed enough," he said, pointing to his chest. "Hopefully, soon."