Nick Polizzotto

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Sgt. Steve Noonan of the South Bend Police Department was hobbling to the ambulance with a gunshot wound to his knee when a buddy lent him his shoulder.

It was Cpl. Nick Polizzotto.

"He asked me if I’d been shot, and I said I had but that I was OK," Noonan recalls of that evening in September 2003.

"Nick helped me to the corner (of Twyckenham Drive and Ewing Avenue) where the ambulance was and also called in on the radio about my status," Noonan adds.

A tough cop, Polizzotto showed a gentle touch that night in helping his fellow officer to safety.

"Nick was one of those officers you could always count on, who didn’t back off and would put himself in harm’s way if he had to," Noonan says.

And now he is gone, mortally wounded early Tuesday morning in a shoot-out at the Wooden Indian Motel on Lincoln Way East. The suspect also was killed, and Ptl. Michael Norby was wounded.

Noonan, who worked the midnight shift with Polizzotto, was off Tuesday.

"But at 1:45, my wife woke me up and said, ‘The police department is on the phone,’ " he says. "Those have become dreaded words."

He absorbed the news about Polizzotto and Norby and quickly put on his uniform to do whatever he could to help a scrambling and grieving department.

"I responded to a burglary-in-progress call on the northeast side, which ended up not being anything, and then backed up (another officer) on another call before heading to the hospital," Noonan says.

His emotions were in overdrive, his heart in his throat.

He couldn’t help but think of his own brush with death almost four years earlier and how Polizzotto had taken care of him before returning to the scene and helping catch the shooter.

"I just had to think how lucky I was," said Noonan, who was shot in the knee through a door while responding to a 911 call about a disturbance in the house.

Three suspects were later arrested without further gunshots, and five officers, including Polizzotto, were honored for their professionalism and courage in handling the situation that night.

"I talked to the chief myself about Nick and how I wanted to make sure his actions were acknowledged," Noonan says.

Noonan himself was honored with the Chief’s Award of Valor for that night; he had continued to supervise on the scene after he was shot until he was sure that others were safe.

If only it could always end that way.

"It’s just so hard to believe what has happened, just a year and a day after Scott (Severns) was killed."

Noonan was at the candlelight vigil Monday night in honor of Severns, who died from injuries suffered during a robbery attempt a year ago on Monday.

"And then just hours later, we find out about Nick and Michael," Noonan says. "One of the veteran officers, John Szuba, said that it seemed this kind of tragedy used to happen about every 10 years. Now it’s as if it is happening every year."

With hardly any sleep, Noonan was at the police station much of Tuesday as part of the Critical Incident Support Team.

But he needed to take time to call his 17-year-old daughter, Erin, to soothe her feelings before she left for school.

"She was crying, obviously very upset at what had happened."

She also was probably thinking back to when her dad, an 18-year veteran, was shot.

"I was off the street from September until December and then the second night I was back, (Mishawaka police officers) Tom Roberts and Bryan Verkler were killed."

On Tuesday, Noonan was able to talk to some of his fellow officers who also had been shot: Ray Wolfenbarger, Kelly Waite and Rick Ruszkowski.

"When things like this happen, we come together as a family," he says. "But it is getting so dangerous out there."

Will he retire after 20 years?

"Probably not," he admits.

He loves his job. Just like Scott Severns did. Just like Nick Polizzotto apparently did, too.

God bless them all.
Published in South Bend Tribune on Apr. 24, 2007
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