He was Black. The cop was white and in danger. All that mattered was saving him | Mark O’Keefe

Daylan McLee, of Uniontown, sits with his nephew, Sa’kari McLee, 4, and girlfriend, Loren Koklarinis, after receiving the civilian lifesaving award for rescuing Uniontown City Police Officer Jay Hanley from a burning car following a crash June 21. (Photo by Alyssa Choiniere for the Uniontown Herald-Standard)

Daylan McLee said it was a message from God.

McLee, 31, was attending a Father’s Day cookout at his father’s house in Uniontown, Pa., about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, when he heard what sounded like a car crash and bystanders screaming.

He went to see what happened, and found a badly damaged police car.

“My first thought was I didn’t think anybody could still be alive because there was so much damage to the car. The police car was on fire, and you smell the gasoline in the air. But then I saw there was a police officer in the car, who was trapped. He was trying to get the door open, but he was having a tough time.

“I went over to help him, and I knew we didn’t have much time because flames were all over the car,” he continued. “All of a sudden, I felt God give me the strength to open that door and drag the police officer across the street. People said I was a hero but it was God working through me.

“With everything going on in the world today, I think God was sending a message through me of how we should live and how we should be helping each other instead of fighting with each other. I really didn’t do anything, it was all God,” said McLee, who is Black.

The police officer was white.

McLee said it didn’t matter that the police officer, Jay Hanley, was bigger than him.

“When I was dragging him across the street, he felt as light as a feather,” McLee told the Capital-Star. “He’s a big dude, but thanks to the grace of God I was able to get him across that street and away from the car.”

Although he suffered severe leg injuries, Hanley is expected to make a full recovery and be back on the job down the road.

McLee said he had no second thoughts about helping the police officer despite having some run-ins with the law in recent years.

According to the Associated Press, McLee filed a lawsuit in late 2018 against four Pennsylvania State Police troopers for wrongful arrest after he spent a year in jail related to a March 2016 fight outside an American Legion bar.

McLee also was arrested a few months ago, when he ran from a porch gathering after men approached with guns drawn. McLee said he stopped immediately when the men announced they were police and plans on fighting the charges in court.

“When I saw the policeman in trouble, I just decided I wasn’t going to let him die on my watch. I don’t know if I could have lived with myself if he had died,” said McLee. “I always put a high value on human life. I value life so much that I couldn’t let him die.”

“I was bitter about police when I was first arrested, but then my mom died, and I started thinking that I couldn’t go through life being bitter like that,” said McLee. “My mom was very religious and always talked about how you had to forgive people and that’s how I started to feel. I didn’t want to have hard feelings toward anyone.”

Uniontown Mayor Bill Gerke said he met McLee about 15 years ago through a mutual friend, and always thought he was a good person.

“He’s the same person today as he was 15 years ago,” said Gerke. “He’s always been a good person. He had some problems in the past, but he was able to let them go. That says a lot about him.”

Gerke said unlike others at the scene, McLee acted quickly to save the police officer’s life.

“I got to the scene and couldn’t believe there were people on their phones taping the rescue. These people could have helped, but they didn’t,” Gerke said. “But then Daylan came along, and he just threw caution to the win. He’s a strong man and he used that strength to save the officer’s life.

“If Daylan hadn’t come along when he did that officer probably would have died,” added Gerke.

To honor McLee for what he did, Uniontown City Council held a special recognition ceremony for him at a recent meeting.

“We just want to show Daylan how appreciative we are for what he did,” said Gerke. “We also want to let the world know the type of place that Uniontown is. We’ve had several protests and rallies in Uniontown recently and they’ve all been very peaceful. People in Uniontown have always gotten along and worked together. We’re like one big family.

“After one of the rallies, a minister’s wife came up to me and said Uniontown’s ‘got it going on.’ I said yes we do but we have to keep it going on and push forward to make sure there are no barriers for anyone. We want to make things better for everyone in Uniontown. I know that’s what Daylan wants, and that’s what we all want,'”  Gerke added.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.