Shot by burglar, St. Louis firefighter faces a new fight
April 30 2009 -"When I want to go faster, I use the wheelchair. I get to make the call," said Cassandra Strong, who decided a trip to Home Depot Thursday for new bathroom fixtures might benefit from the use of some speed. Cassandra is the wife of Ernest Strong, the St. Louis firefighter who was shot seven times when he interrupted a burglary at his home in February. (Laurie Skrivan/P-D)By Leah Thorsen
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Ernest Strong was 44 when he passed the test to become a firefighter in the city of St. Louis. He remembers being the oldest guy in the class.
His classmates dubbed him "Murtaugh," for the aging detective played by Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" movies.
It didn't bother him. It was 1999, and he was in great shape. He didn't flinch when it came time to see if he had the stamina to keep up with younger classmates. He heaved a sledgehammer, threw hoses out of a window and navigated a 10-story tall tower while wearing a 40-pound tank. He passed.
He'd been a corrections officer in the city's workhouse for five years. He'd served in Iraq for six months during the Persian Gulf War, as a combat engineer whose duties included setting up landmines.
And he'd worked as a maintenance man at a J.C. Penney store in Northwest Plaza, making $5 an hour to support his wife and five children.
Hard work didn't scare him. Not much did — until Feb. 11. That's the day, police say, that Strong was shot when he interrupted a burglary at his home. His recovery has been long, painful and too slow for Strong.
For now, he needs a walker to navigate his home, and even a handshake requires too much strength. But he wants to return to the job he loved, even though he knows it isn't going to be easy.
TWO CHARGED IN ATTACK
Strong was off duty on the day that changed his life. He and his wife, Cassandra, shared a quick lunch at a McDonald's on her break. She went back to work. He drove back to their home of about 14 years, in the 900 block of Beach Avenue. A car he didn't recognize was parked in the driveway.
He called police and then his wife. A scuffle ensued, and that's about all Strong wants to say about the "incident with those thugs," so he doesn't jeopardize pending court cases. MORE METRO
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Moments after the confrontation, seven bullets had pierced his body. His wife made it home in time to see him surrounded by police and firefighters working to save his life.
"My husband was face-down in a puddle of rain," she recalled.
Terrence Hendrickson, 22, and Demar Cotton, 19, have been charged with the shooting, which police say happened when Strong interrupted them burglarizing his home.
Both await trial on charges of first-degree assault, burglary, third-degree assault and armed criminal action. Strong's daughter, 28, who is developmentally disabled and lives at home, was in the house at the time and was struck, police said.
"Someone used a gun on me," Ernest Strong said. "I can't get that out of my mind, that someone wanted to take my life."
So now, the man who once dragged a 200-pound mannequin a distance of 10 feet to show that he was as tough as men half his age uses a walker to get around his house.
He returned home on April 24 after spending about a month in the hospital and several more weeks in a rehabilitation center.
"His body will never be the same," Cassandra Strong said.
The bullets left small, circular scars on his upper chest. He has undergone surgery nine times. One of the bullets hit him in the upper spine. Two metal rods in his neck are the reason he can hold his head up. His windpipe, esophagus and liver also were damaged. He suffered blood clots in his legs and has nerve damage.
He had to relearn the muscle motions needed to feed and dress himself. He picked up blocks to firm up his grip.
For more than two months, he wore a special neck collar. He got to take that off last Wednesday, he said.
Strong admits that his condition is frustrating. But he believes God has carried him this far and will keep carrying him. Cassandra Strong says the same. But neither of them focus on that. Instead, they talk about the days ahead of them.
"I'm not bitter," Ernest Strong said. "I've already turned the page, because what can the past do for me?"
Strong may not be bitter, but he is angry at what he sees happening in his neighborhood and his city.
He grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Soldan High School in 1974. Things weren't perfect then, Strong said. But they weren't like they are now. He sees too many young people with guns, and he would like to see police do more sweeps to get them off the streets.
"I've never approved of guns or what they could do to people," he said.
But now, he's considering buying one.
He says too many young people aren't getting the guidance they need from their parents. And he resents that he was shot by people at his home and who were stealing from him.
"I didn't grow up rich," he said. "But I never took anything from anyone. I worked for everything."
Strong turned 54 earlier last month. He and his family are trying to get their lives back to normal — backyard grilling, karaoke and going to the movies.
He goes to rehab about three days a week and is nearly 40 pounds lighter than that day in February.
Back then, he was a firefighter stationed at the airport. He'd been there about a year.
Capt. Bob Keuss, a Fire Department spokesman, said everyone at the department wants to see Strong heal and return. "There's nothing that we'd love more than to have Ernest Strong back on the job."
Strong and his wife have been overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from colleagues. He said Chief Dennis Jenkerson sent an ambulance to pick him up from the hospital on his birthday April 12, which was Easter, so he could share a meal with his family. And he's grateful for the fundraisers by the Firefighters' Institute for Racial Equality, a fraternal organization to which many black firefighters, including Strong, belong.
The group raised about $6,000 standing outside two dance clubs last month to collect donations, said Capt. Abram Pruitt Jr., the organization's chairman.
"He's one of our own, so we want to help him get through this time," he said.
Firefighters also have been donating sick time, Pruitt said, and more fundraisers are expected.
Strong wants to return to the way he was before he was shot, but he knows he has a long way to go.
"I was taken out in February," he said. "I'd like to return next February."