By Eric Levenson, CNN
A Kentucky prisoner who pulled people from the rubble of a collapsed candle factory in December was honored by a local sheriff last week for going “above and beyond” to help people.
The Graves County Sheriff’s Office awarded the “Sheriff’s Meritorious Award” on Tuesday to Marco Sanchez, a prisoner who worked at the Mayfield, Kentucky, candle factory late last year as part of a work release program, the office said on Facebook.
On the night of December 10, a tornado leveled the factory, killing eight people and burying dozens of others under rubble and debris. Sanchez was injured in the collapse yet managed to crawl to safety, and he then returned to help others, the sheriff said.
“Mr. Sanchez, after freeing himself, with a broken leg and cracked ribs, unselfishly went and found tools and other items and returned and reentered the rubble and render(ed) aid to those injured and freed several others, quite possibly saving human lives,” Sheriff Jon Hayden said.
In an interview with CNN affiliate WKYT, Sanchez said he started looking for survivors after he made it to safety.
“There was a girl there trapped, and she was crying, ‘Help me, I’m trapped.’ She didn’t know I was there,” he said. “Every decision I made at that moment, I don’t have experience on rescuing or anything. I just used common sense.”
Kyanna Parsons-Perez, one of the workers at the factory, was pinned under about five feet of rubble after the factory collapsed. She told CNN at the time her supervisor and several prisoners working at the factory helped get her out to safety.
Sanchez was one of seven prisoners working at the candle factory as part of a work-release program for low-security low-level offenders. A Graves County deputy overseeing the group was killed in the collapse, and three of the prisoners were treated for injuries. The Mayfield candle factory was one of the most devastated sites in an outbreak of at least 30 tornadoes across six states in the Midwest and South.
In his Facebook post, Sheriff Hayden also praised Sanchez for not trying to flee or evade captors in the hours after the collapse.
After helping to free others, Sanchez got a ride to the emergency room to be treated for his injuries, the sheriff said. There, Sanchez saw a state trooper, identified himself as an inmate and said he needed to turn himself in, but the trooper said he was not in a position to help him, according to the sheriff.
Sanchez then took a shuttle bus to a shelter and learned the jail had also been destroyed in the series of powerful tornadoes. He was then put into contact with jail staff who took him back into custody, the sheriff said.
“Mr. Sanchez had a lot of decisions to make that night,” the sheriff said. “He could have made the decision to only save himself, but he didn’t. His actions likely resulted in other lives being saved. The series of decisions he made over the next several hours were the right decisions, and we applaud you for that, sir.”
Sheriff Hayden told Sanchez’s sentencing judge about the heroic actions during a court hearing last week, the sheriff said. The judge determined Sanchez only had 14 days left to serve and offered a shock probation — a form of early release — but Sanchez chose to complete his sentence instead.
“I thought because of what I did that led me to incarceration, it was something that I did, and I deserve to do the time,” Sanchez told WKYT.
Sanchez will be released March 1 and will be looking for a job and a place to live, Hayden said in his Facebook post.
“We hope someone will take a chance on him and give him an opportunity to start a new life,” the sheriff said. “He is a hard worker, as he has been assisting county government in moving offices since the tornado, and he is a very humble man. We wish him the best and applaud him for his sense of humanity.”
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