Veteran Los Angeles Police Officer Don Thompson was heading to his assignment with the LAPD's bomb squad when he saw a car barrel across several lanes of the 405 Freeway, strike the center divider and burst into flames.
Thompson slammed on his brakes, jumped out of his vehicle and ran to the burning car. The doors were badly damaged. The large man inside was unconscious.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article said that Det. Gerald Sawyer was gunned down this year. He was killed in 1973.
"As I pulled at him, I could see the flames coming from behind him. I could feel heat on my skin," Thompson recalled.
The officer was barely able to breathe as he tried to find the car's seat belt release to free the driver. Thompson managed to lift the driver from car and carry him to safety with the help of two bystanders as flames consumed the vehicle.
Thompson suffered first-degree burns to his arms and face, but still headed to work and completed his shift at LAX that day.
On Thursday, he took the stage inside the Hollywood & Highland Center to receive the LAPD's Medal of Valor from Chief Charlie Beck. Thompson was one of 14 Medal of Valor recipients. Twelve officers were awarded Purple Heart medals — some posthumously. The award honors those injured while showing courage.
"The willingness to sacrifice your safety and even your life for someone else truly is a characteristic that is not common, that is not ordinary," Beck told hundreds of officers, civic dignitaries and police supporters who attended the event.
Beck said this year's deaths of four officers showed that the job's risks were real. Det. Gerald Sawyer, who was gunned down in a Santa Monica hotel in 1973 while working as an undercover drug officer, was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously.
As the event's master of ceremonies, actor G.W. Bailey, best known for his role in the "Police Academy" movies and the television show "The Closer," read a synopsis of the deadly Santa Monica event. Sawyer's daughter shed a tear as she waited to receive her father's award.
One man, Metro Officer Sean Schneider, was honored with the Medal of Valor and the Purple Heart for separate acts of bravery.
"It could happen to anyone," Schneider said.
His Purple Heart was awarded for an incident that occurred while he was working undercover in October 2011 and got into a gun battle with men armed with a shotgun and a pistol.
Shotgun pellets wounded Schneider and his partner, Officer Phillip Scallon, whose left eye was swollen shut as Schneider called for backup. The officers managed to escape from their undercover van in Westlake and were able to provide other officers with a description of the suspects that led to their arrests.
Less than a year later, Schneider and nine other officers confronted a suspect armed with an AK-47. The gunman led police on a 28-mile pursuit before shooting at officers and bystanders after he crashed his car in downtown Los Angeles.
Schneider and Officer Joseph Broussard ran into the line of fire and rescued a man who had been trapped in a vehicle caught in the crossfire. The gunman was eventually disarmed when an LAPD dog was set loose and distracted him for long enough for officers to grab him.
Ten officers involved in the incident were awarded the Medal of Valor.