Retired Montague officer, state trooper commended for 2022 fire response

From left, retired Montague Police Sgt. Lee Laster and Massachusetts State Trooper Hunter Ratelle at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters on June 5, where both men were awarded Medals of Valor for their actions during a 2022 house fire in Millers Falls.

From left, retired Montague Police Sgt. Lee Laster and Massachusetts State Trooper Hunter Ratelle at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters on June 5, where both men were awarded Medals of Valor for their actions during a 2022 house fire in Millers Falls. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

By ERIN-LEIGH HOFFMAN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-18-2024 1:19 PM

MONTAGUE — When Massachusetts State Trooper Hunter Ratelle smelled smoke from his home in Millers Falls on Nov. 8, 2022, he ran outside to find a neighboring two-family home ablaze. Joined by retired Montague Police Sgt. Lee Laster who lived next door, they jumped into action.

They broke through a locked door at 20 Bridge St. and entered the building through thick smoke and fire. Ratelle located a 6-year-old child and Laster found the child’s mother, guiding both of them out of the home safely.

Though both men attempted to reenter the house, they could not save 66-year-old Judy Verchot.

“I know I did everything I could, but it still bothers me because in my mind, I feel like I failed,” Laster said in reflection, adding that he’s grateful for therapy that has helped him to process the trauma. This is something that Ratelle, too, said he struggles with.

A year and a half later, Laster and Ratelle are being recognized for their heroic actions that saved the lives of the young boy and his mother. The two were awarded Medals of Valor at a June 5 ceremony at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Framingham. The Medal of Valor is awarded to an officer who demonstrated an “outstanding act in the line of duty at imminent personal hazard of life, involving extraordinary courage and valor, with full knowledge of the risk involved,” according to the Massachusetts Police Association’s website.

Laster, who had retired from the Montague Police Department just a month before the fire occurred, feels honored to have been recognized for this actions that day.

“It was a very humbling ceremony. I’m very honored and thankful. I’m grateful,” Lee said. “I try to always keep an attitude of gratitude.”

Ratelle feels similarly to Laster, expression his gratitude toward the State Police for the recognition of his actions that day.

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“There’s people out there every day that do stuff like this, and a lot of them don’t go recognized,” Ratelle said. “For the commonwealth to take their time to recognize me and Lee, it means a lot.”

Recalling his state of mind on Nov. 8, 2022, Laster said he never considered the danger he may be in. Laster said he is very thankful for Ratelle, who not only helped get the residents out of the home, but also helped guide Laster out of the house after he became disoriented by the smoke.

“I surely would have burned or continued further into the house and got trapped. So [Ratelle] is my hero,” Laster said. He feels that, in the end, Ratelle deserves the recognition. “He deserves this award, not me.”

Since the 2022 fire, which was deemed non-suspicious by investigators, the house has been rebuilt and Laster is still in contact with the family.

“I see [the child] every day, and it’s bittersweet. I’m glad he’s alive and he’s healthy, and he’s going to grow up and have a beautiful life,” Laster said, while expressing sadness over the loss of their loved one.

Further reflecting on his time as a police officer and on receiving the Medal of Valor, Laster said he wants current first responders and law enforcement officials to be mindful of the impact they have on their communities.

“We are impacting lives with every encounter we have with someone,” Laster said. “There’s a lot of amazing people that wear the uniform and all different types of uniforms that do so much on a day-to-day basis.”

Erin-Leigh Hoffman can be reached at ehoffman@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.