DECATUR - When Dan Winter signed on to become a police auxiliary officer as part of the unit's first contingent, he had no idea he would be pressed into service at one of the city's worst disasters.
Winter, a schoolteacher in 1971, saw a newspaper ad announcing that the Decatur Police Department was looking for a few good men to donate their time and services to the community. In return, they would receive forest green uniforms, firearms training and full arrest powers.
"I've always had kind of a fascination with the police," said Winter, one of 25 men who were sworn in as volunteers to back up patrol officers in 1971.
They would be required to work at least 12 hours each month, ride in squad cars with officers, patrol special events on foot and help out during disasters.
For Winter, disaster duty would mean working the deadly rail yard explosion in 1974 that claimed seven lives and injured 349 others.
As the department marked the 40th anniversary of the Decatur Police Auxiliary this June, officials noted that the volunteers are continuing to make a significant contribution to the city.
"They have been a godsend to the Decatur Police Department," said Deputy Chief James Chervinko, head of the patrol division and commander of the auxiliary.
The auxiliary, composed of 37 members who work about 7,000 hours annually, saves the department hundreds of thousands of dollars by keeping down the amount of overtime used by regular officers.
Chervinko said most of the auxiliary officers fit into two categories: younger people who aspire to become full-time police officers and those who enjoy serving the community as part-timers. Those who hope to don regular uniforms find out what the job really entails.
"They learn more about the police department, and we learn more about them," Chervinko said.
Auxiliary officers are required to attend two meetings each month, one of which is set aside for training.
Patrol Sgt. Greg Spain, the auxiliary's liaison officer, attends all the meetings, along with detective Sgt. Jason Walker, assistant liaison officer.
Spain served six years on the auxiliary before joining the regular force 27 years ago.
During his auxiliary days, which began with training at age 20, Spain put in 50 or 60 hours per week. Apparently that got the attention of the brass.
"They thought: If he's going to be here all the time, put him on the payroll," Spain said.
Unlike many officers who have put their auxiliary days behind them, Spain enjoyed his volunteer service so much that he plans to put in another stint after he retires.
"My goal is to start on the auxiliary and finish my career on the auxiliary," he said.
Auxiliary Capt. Mark Meurlot, who has served on the volunteer force for 28 years, said the administrative structure is similar to the regular department. There are four lieutenants who report to the captain, as well as four sergeants below them. Jeff Rhodes is the lieutenant of community services; Alan Engdale, administrative lieutenant; Rodney Gant, quartermaster lieutenant; and Jerry Johnson, lieutenant of training.
Meurlot, who owns a downtown printing business, said he originally hoped to become a police officer, but after applying a couple of times he decided to remain in the private sector.
Its longest serving member, Meurlot has remained on the auxiliary because he finds it an exciting way to serve the community, enjoys the many friends he has made and enjoys handguns and other firearms.
During his lengthy volunteer career, Meurlot recalls only one dangerous situation, which he handled with the help of Dan Winter.
Meurlot was on duty at a Jaycees haunted house event on North Jasper Street when he spotted a teenager standing on a truck bed pointing a .38-caliber revolver at someone in the crowd.
"As I walked up to the truck, prepared to draw down on him, he dropped his hand, jumped off the truck and took off running with the gun," Meurlot said.
Winter was driving toward the event when he saw Meurlot chasing the young man.
"I gunned it and cut the guy off with my truck," Winter said. "As soon as we got him detained, Mark said he had a gun."
After handcuffing the suspect, they found the revolver about 10 feet away, in the grass near the curb.
Winter also helped catch a couple of burglars who were hiding in the grass in the dark behind a True Value hardware store on the north side, while on patrol with a regular officer.
But his most memorable duty occurred July 19, 1974, when he was summoned to help out at the command post in Nelson Park in the aftermath of the isobutane railcar explosion, which destroyed many buildings on the city's east side and severely damaged Lakeview High School.
Winter, then a West End resident, was almost blown out of bed by the explosion, which occurred at 5:03 a.m.
"That was a very chaotic day," Winter said, adding that officers from many police agencies flowed in and out of the command post, as he directed traffic.
Winter, who was scheduled to teach summer school elsewhere that day, recalled that he was sent to Lakeview High School, where all the windows were blown out and the roof caved in. He walked into the building, searching for casualties.
"I saw all the lockers pitched over into the middle of the hallway," he recalled. "If school had been in session, it would have been a bloodbath tragedy."
Winter, who served on the auxiliary for 25 years, said the volunteers had a great relationship with the regular officers, whom he admired greatly, especially for their amazing knowledge of people on their beats: where they lived, the cars they drove, their girlfriends and boyfriends.
Winter, who retired from teaching and now serves as president of the Decatur school board, said serving alongside the police opened his eyes to the many dire situations that occur daily in the city.
"You do what you can to mitigate those," he said.
Mark Barthelemy, chief of police from 2001 to 2006, was a member of the auxiliary immediately before he was hired in 1975.
That experience helped him learn many tricks of the trade before he was sworn in, as he served alongside many different patrol officers.
The auxiliary officers are "terribly valuable" to the community, he said.
"The police department couldn't possibly handle all the functions they are expected to handle without all those individuals who donate their services to the community. It takes a special person to do that."