PIKEVILLE -- When vapors from a leaking pipeline beneath an Eastern Kentucky subdivision exploded last fall, Rick Conn emerged from the flames a hero.
An off-duty Kentucky State Police trooper, Conn escaped from his burning vehicle and -- with his hands badly burned -- caught a neighbor's little girl when her mother tossed her about 4 feet through a blown-out window in her burning home.
"I couldn't really hold her ... I did this way with my arms," Conn said yesterday, crossing them on his chest -- his burned fingers stiff in skin-toned compression gloves.
Conn, 42, was seared, emotionally and physically, by the Nov. 8 blast, which destroyed five homes and injured nine people in an upscale subdivision in Ivel in Floyd County.
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But he shrugged off any hero label yesterday in interviews with reporters at the Pikeville Fire Department training center.
"Anybody there would have done the same thing," he said.
"One of the biggest heroes in my mind was Jeannie Newsome, the mother who wouldn't leave her child," Conn said. "She placed herself between the fire and her little girl. She's the hero in this. She didn't get the credit I got, but she's the one who saved the baby."
State officials, including Gov. Ernie Fletcher, and fire and police agencies have heaped praise and awards upon Conn.
"He is definitely a picture, an image, of what a state trooper ought to be," Trooper Scott Hopkins of Pikeville said.
Conn, who suffered second- and-third degree burns on his face, neck and hands, fought back tears yesterday as he described Newsome holding her 2-year-old child, Alexis, out to him. Thirteen weeks later, he said he still dreams of being caught inside his 1997 Mercury Mountaineer, engulfed in flames. "I can still hear the fire. It has a sound all its own."
On the morning of the explosion, Conn said, he was returning home from Pikeville when he turned off U.S. 23 into the Rolling Acres subdivision. He saw mist and, he thought, water near a neighbor's driveway: "I assumed it was a water leak."
He said a neighbor was inspecting the scene but walked away as he approached. Conn said he decided to go home and call the water department. As he passed Newsome's home, a fiery blast suddenly blew in his driver's side window.
"I was on fire," he said. "Everything inside the vehicle was on fire."
With his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes burned away and his state-police sweat shirt in flames, Conn dove out the broken window and rolled around to put out the fire, he said.
When he stood, he heard Newsome screaming.
The U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety later said the explosive vapor came from a small leak in a 4-inch metal pipeline transporting natural gas liquids beneath the subdivision. Conn and his neighbors said they did not know it was there.
"If I had any idea there was that kind of line in the subdivision, I never would have moved into it," said Conn, who is married and has two children.
Engineers at the state Public Service Commission said yesterday that officials have not determined what triggered the blast.
Conn said he does not think anything in his vehicle ignited the vapors because his windows were blown in from the side. "It looked to me like it (started elsewhere) and came around to Jeannie's house, and it got me," he said.
Conn is undergoing physical therapy twice a week. He can drive, but he cannot grip a pistol and doesn't know when he will be able to return to work.
He said that he might not be able to resume his duties.
"I don't want to think that way," Conn said, smiling. "I want to be optimistic."