KAYSVILLE — A half-dozen officers from the Kaysville Police Department continued to heal Friday from injuries sustained Thursday while trying to save a man who lit himself on fire inside a convenience store.
But Chief Solomon Oberg said the mental and emotional wounds may take longer to mend than the physical injuries.
Meanwhile, the family of the man who police say doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire are praising the officers who tried to help him. At the same time, relatives of Tyler Ivison want to raise awareness of mental illness, and claim Thursday's tragedy could have been avoided if not for a failed system.
"Because our mental health system failed Tyler, he was not the only one to pay a steep price. The brave men and women of the police force (who are nothing short of heroes) were also injured trying to save a man who, had our mental health system done its job diligently, should have never been in that situation in the first place," Joshua Budge, Ivison's brother-in-law, wrote in a statement to the Deseret News.
"It's just been an uphill battle and it hasn't stopped," said Ivison's sister, Kayla Faith Budge.
She said her brother has bipolar disorder and has attempted suicide four times, but he does not remember the episodes afterward. Despite more and more frequent hospital visits over the past few years, her brother typically has been discharged in a matter of days and has not been able to get appropriate psychiatric care and counseling, she said.
Just before 2 p.m. Thursday, Ivison walked into Chevron Top Stop, 320 W. 200 North, which is also a McDonald's restaurant. He purchased a gas can, went outside to fill it up, then returned to the store, doused himself with the gasoline and threatened to light it, police say.
Officers were called and arrived at the store in minutes, before the man set himself on fire, the chief said. Ivison, who at one point had run into the store bathroom, came out and confronted the officers in the main store area, he said.
Typically, Oberg said officers try not to do anything to further agitate a suicidal person or someone suspected of having a mental illness. But in this case, for the man's safety and the protection of other customers and employees in the store, the officers went "hands on" to try and get the lighter away from him, Oberg said.
"The officers were trying to knock the lighter out of his hands and secure his hands,” he said.
The officer who ended up having the worst injuries — the first one on the scene — slipped and fell while struggling with the man.
"One of our officers had fallen down in some gasoline as he was trying to subdue this man. He got fuel on his uniform and that caused some of the burning," Oberg said.
When Ivison was able to use his lighter, "I think it was just a big burst of flame," the chief said.
Officers were able to drag him outside the store and quickly extinguish the flames. But several officers suffered burns and smoke inhalation injuries during the initial burst of fire.
Police said Thursday that four officers had been hospitalized. Oberg updated that number Friday, saying six officers — five men and one woman — were treated by doctors at hospitals.
The officer who fell in the gasoline, soaking his uniform, suffered the worst injuries, Oberg said.
On Friday, the chief visited the officer — whose name has not been released — at University Hospital. He suffered "significant" injuries, including burns on his legs and back, including some second-degree burns, he said.
"He’s in good spirits. He’s hurting. He’s in a lot of pain. Anybody who has been burned before can sympathize with that. But he’s a very optimistic, driven young man and determined to get past this,” the chief said. "He’s just determined to get through this. He’s a fighter."
The officer, who has only been with the Kaysville Police Department for three months and in law enforcement overall for just two years, was expected to remain in the hospital for about two more weeks. Hospital officials said he was listed in fair condition late Thursday.
The officer, who is married with no children, had family members with him at the hospital on Friday. Oberg told the officer to get used to seeing him because he planned on visiting him every day.
Another officer who suffered burns on both of his arms and his face was released from the hospital Thursday night, but will be "off for a while," the chief said. That officer returned to the hospital on Friday to have his dressings changed.
Two officers, a man and a woman, were "briefly on fire" and suffered superficial burns in addition to smoke inhalation, he said.
"I could see his shirt around his shoulder area was burned," he said of the male officer.
Two other officers were checked for smoke inhalation. They ended up driving themselves to a hospital.
One of the officers involved in the incident was back on the job Friday, the chief said. Some of the others are expected to take a couple of days off. Oberg noted that his staff was already short-handed due to spring break and several vacations this week.
"Just another challenge," he said. "We're still moving forward."
As difficult as the incident was for his officers, Oberg said he's "incredibly proud" of what they did.
"I feel a lot of pride in the fact that these officers, without hesitation, responded to an emergency to save not only this suicidal person but a lot of other people in what could have been literally an explosive situation here," he said.
He said the officers, especially the one still hospitalized, are extremely appreciative of the outpouring of support from the community and other law enforcement agencies.
"He’s in this game to help people, So it’s nice for him to hear the community appreciates his sacrifice and what he’s trying to do day in and day out,” the police chief said.
Ivison, 26, remained at University Hospital Friday in critical condition. Police originally misidentified his age as being 45. His sister said doctors believe his recovery from the burns could take months.
Budge described her brother is "the most wonderful person you'd ever meet."2 comments on this story
"We know he's going through a living hell. And getting people to listen and help him the way he needs, I mean it's a constant battle. And what do you do?" she said. "He's a threat to himself. He was a threat to other people, like those awesome first responders coming in and helping him. Thank God they were there. I don't know how much you have to say to get people to listen."
Oberg concurred that more funding and more support is needed to address several societal issues that police officers are facing more and more often, including mental illness.
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basic. The national crisis hotline is 1-800-784-2433.
Contributing: Ladd Egan, Brianna Bodily, Annie Knox