July 29, 2008

An Officer Comes Home

By Christine Byers, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 29--Posters greeted him: "To a Real Hero.""Welcome Home Uncle Adam." Balloons floated in his garage. Gift baskets lined the living room shelves.

"It's a very important day to me," Fite, 28, told the Post-Dispatch on Monday as he relaxed in his living room recliner. "It's like I am becoming me again."

A week earlier, his shift began with a call to a car fire. He grabbed his favorite soft drink, Sierra Mist, and headed out.

Firefighters were arriving when he pulled his cruiser onto Zephyr Place to block traffic.

He was about to say hello when he heard an explosion and the firefighter carrying a hose fell to his knees.

"At first, I thought there might be something in the fire, or the firefighter's air tank may have popped," Fite said. "I was in a daze for a second. I started running to him, and a paramedic ran in the opposite direction to get medical supplies. I had no idea it was a shooter."

Fite heard another explosion. This time, it felt like someone punched him in the chest. He ran about 15 steps, dropped to the ground and tried to call for help.

The dispatcher couldn't understand, and he hit the alert button on his radio. He grabbed his neck and choked on his own blood.

"It felt like someone with giant hands was squeezing my upper body," he said.

He could hear voices. He stared at the sky. He heard another explosion. Sgt. Mike Martin yelled that he had been shot.

Fellow Officers Megan Keith and Eric Forst, and paramedic Andy Neff rushed to Fite's side. Keith put his head in her lap.

"I was thinking, 'Even though this really sucks, they say when it comes to serious injuries, if it hurts, it's a good sign,'" Fite said.

Fite heard Neff scream into his radio for an ambulance.

"We were still in the line of fire at that point," Fite said.

Neff, Keith, Forst and Brentwood police Lt. Paul Furber picked him up and ran.

"It felt like they were running in an Olympic race and they threw me in," Fite said. "I think the ambulance took off before the doors were even shut."

It did. Fite's cell phone fell and hit the bumper. Forst caught it, and it rang. It was Fite's wife, Julie.

"I knew it was bad when Eric answered the phone," she said.

At the hospital, doctors told Julie her husband was alive. "He's going to stay that way right?" she asked.

When she saw him, a white blanket covered his body. Underneath, entrance and exit wounds from a bullet fired from a 6.5 mm bolt-action rifle throbbed. The bullet pierced the right side of his chest, just beyond the protection of his vest, and shattered his sternum. It collapsed a lung, then exited, blowing out the lower portion of his badge.

Unable to speak, he motioned for a pen.

"Sierra Mist?" Julie asked as she read his note.

He nodded.

"Beer," he wrote next.

"Are you serious?" his wife said, knowing her husband was joking.

She asked whether he knew what had happened. He nodded.

He wrote, "Sgt. Martin," then held up three fingers, one for each of three victims.

She told him firefighter Ryan Hummert had died.

"Apprehension?" he wrote.

"No, he either shot himself or burned up in a fire," Julie said of the suspect, Mark Knobbe. She saw anger in her husband's eyes.

The next day, Martin visited Fite.

"I just wanted to know the ending," Fite said. "We now have this bond because we had the same thing happen to us."

By Thursday, Fite took his first steps. That's when fear set in. He was short of breath. And freezing because of blood thinners. He worried about long-term effects.

The next day, things were better. He walked again. And his wife bathed him. "I finally feel like I'm going to be OK," he told her.

It was the answer to one of her prayers. Others went out to the Martin and Hummert families, she said.

The weekend went well. His chest tube came out. He walked more. But he missed his 1-year-old son, Victor.

The toddler stayed with Julie's parents, Joe and Judy Bilello, in south St. Louis County. Julie spent her nights there, too.

"I just couldn't sleep at home without him," she said.

By Monday, Fite was ready to come home. He shaved for the first time. Took his first shower. And traded his hospital gown for a polo shirt and shorts. As he bent over, blood from the exit wound dripped onto his shorts. Time for another change of clothes.

"So are you looking forward to getting back to work?" asked nurse Terica Meeks, as she wheeled Fite to his car.

"To be honest, I'm a little scared," he said.

Julie took his wedding ring off her finger and handed it to him.

When the couple pulled up to their Arnold home, Julie's father was mowing the lawn.

"You want to finish this for me?" he joked.

Julie's mother tearfully embraced Fite. He cut off his hospital bracelets.

He said being shot has caused him to re-evaluate police work.

"On every call, I'll think of it a little bit differently," he said.

Julie hopes her husband eventually will return to work to prove a point.

"I will support him no matter what, but I believe if he doesn't go back, Mark Knobbe will have won ..."â°," she said.

Victor soon awoke from a nap. As the toddler rounded the corner, tears filled Fite's eyes.

"There's Dada," Julie said. "It's like it was just a dream and Dada was here the whole time."

[email protected] -- 636-500-4106


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