For Air Force’s Torrel, heroic act something ‘anyone would have done’

Air Force’s Mitch Torrel has already shown he’s ready for whatever challenges his military career may hold.

The sophomore forward stepped up 21 months ago when he alerted and escorted out some of the 150 elderly residents of a Wenatchee, Wash., assisted living complex during a fire that destroyed one apartment and resulted in the deaths of two of their neighbors.

“Anyone would have done it,” the future combat rescue or special tactics officer from Monticello, Minn., replied when told many consider him a hero.

Certainly anyone wearing a cadet uniform, coach Frank Serratore said.

“I’d like to think that I’d do something, you’d do something and so would our players,” Serratore said. “We don’t really know what we’d do until we’re in that situation. I commend him for doing the right thing. It’s typical of the quality of people we have at the Academy.”

Most people would have called in the fire, as Torrel did, and watched in safety until authorities arrived. But Torrel is not most everyone. He ran into the building, pulled the fire alarm and banged on doors to alert the residents.

“That’s just how he is,” said Falcons sophomore defenseman Adam McKenzie, also a teammate of his in junior hockey. “He just does what needs to be done on and off the ice, in the classroom or outside it.”

It also should be no shock that the cadet, who handles most everything in a low-key fashion, was surprised to be honored during an exhibition game in Wenatchee when Air Force played Simon Fraser of British Columbia in early October.

“The fans at the game are our core group of fans and they were aware of Mitch’s actions,” said Wenatchee Wild president and general manager Bill Stewart. “They all stood and applauded.”

The Hometown Hero award from the area’s American Red Cross chapter is “the biggest award I’ve ever received,” Torrel said. “Certainly bigger than anything I ever got in hockey.”

It could be considered mighty small compared to what he did.

Air Force's Mitch Torrel. (Den Mar Services)

While driving home from a practice with the Wenatchee Wild of the North American Hockey League, Torrel was talking on his cell phone with his father when he noticed a burning curtain in an apartment window.

He hung up, pulled over and was the first to call in the March 15, 2010, fire to 911, according to authorities. He knew he had to act quickly.

“As I was calling the fire in, the window blew out,” he said.

He entered the burning building.

“I ran up a couple floors and started pounding on doors,” he said. “Some people needed help getting down stairs because of medical conditions. They had walkers and were on oxygen. I tried to get them down the stairs as best I could.”

The then-19-year-old helped four out of the building, which did not have fire sprinklers, before police and firefighters arrived.

He tried to do more, but smoke and heat filled the blackened fourth-floor hallway so much that he could get within only a few yards of the apartment where the electrical fire had started.

The resident had panicked and locked herself in the bathroom. Myrna Hansen, a 73-year-old who was on oxygen, died of her burns the next night while another woman suffered a fatal heart attack that the county coroner said likely was brought on by the stress.

“I just wish I could have gotten in there earlier,” he said. “I just wasn’t able to get to her. After I heard she died … that was tough.”

After authorities arrived in sufficient numbers to handle the fire, Torrel was told his Jeep was blocking a fire hydrant. He hopped in and drove home to his billet family.

“It’s very typical of him to do that, just jump in his car and drive away,” Stewart said.

How he conducted himself during that emergency inspired Torrel, who decided to study either combat rescue or special tactics when he entered the Academy.

“I do know that I can handle it,” he said.

Showing that humility only makes him a better example for his fellow cadets, who may be called on to act heroically in the future.

“It’s hard not to be inspired,” McKenzie said. “The act and how he handled himself about it is inspiring. He’s really an inspiring person.”