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Hero firefighter saves lives, even on his way to the movies

West Pierce Fire & Rescue Firefighter Jonathan Tinsley’s received his third medal of valor after intervening when a man assaulted two others at a truck stop.
West Pierce Fire & Rescue Firefighter Jonathan Tinsley’s received his third medal of valor after intervening when a man assaulted two others at a truck stop. jbessex@gateline.com

Jonathan Tinsley once rescued a woman being stabbed in the middle of a Lakewood street.

Another time, he dove into a frigid Lake Steilacoom to try to save a man whose canoe had overturned. And last month, he tackled a man who attacked several people at a Tumwater gas station.

The 35-year-old West Pierce Fire & Rescue firefighter can’t explain how he finds himself involved in others’ life-or-death situations, both in uniform and out.

“Bad things happen in front of me and I feel obligated to fix them, I guess,” Tinsley said.

For the third time since joining the department in November 2004, Tinsley was honored with West Pierce’s Valor Award for his actions during the March 3 incident in Tumwater.

The only reason Tinsley was at the Pilot station, 2430 93rd Ave. SW, about 7 p.m. March 3 was because his dad lost his keys.

As they waited with Tinsley’s two kids for his wife to bring a spare key, Tinsley and his father, Mark, watched a man aggressively pace around the station, swinging his arms and screaming at people.

They watched him start to walk away from the gas station, only to stop at the last pump and berate a woman.

She put her hands up. He cocked his hand and punched her as hard as he could, square in her face. When her husband came up, the man hit him too.

By then, Tinsley was running toward the confrontation.

“I have to go help them. They’re in big trouble,” Tinsley thought. “That guy just literally attacked them. I have to go help them, and I was going to.

“I didn’t have another option in my head,” he added. “That was the option.”

He tackled the man, then restrained him until law enforcement arrived and continued to hold him down until backup arrived.

Mark Tinsley called 911, then hung back and protected the kids.

Once enough officers were around, the younger Tinsley returned his attention to the man, this time as a paramedic.

“That is what I do for a living,” Tinsley said. “Whatever drugs that guy was on or whatever his situation, I still feel that I have to provide medical aid to the best of my ability.”

Tinsley works out of Station 31 in University Place, where he moved after 12 years stationed in Lakewood. He’s a member of the rapid-entry swimmer program and a pilot of the fire boat Endeavor on Puget Sound.

The Steilacoom High School alumnus also is a senior airman in the Washington Air National Guard as a forward air controller.

He received his second Valor Award for his actions April 22, 2012, when he tried to rescue a 24-year-old Tacoma man after his canoe overturned in Lake Steilacoom.

Nickolas Munson and a friend were out after midnight, drunkenly paddling around when the canoe overturned. They held on for awhile before the friend swam to shore. Munson was lost in the water.

West Pierce Fire, including Tinsley, his father and his brother Jason, responded. Tinsley dove into the frigid lake and started to search of Munson. There was no visibility, and the divers had no thermal protection.

Within five minutes, Munson was found unconscious and could not be revived.

“All three of us ended up with awards on that call, which is kind of special,” Tinsley said.

The Tinsley contingent is five strong at West Pierce Fire: brothers Jonathan and Jason, dad Mark, and uncles Bruce and Paul. Jonathan and Jason’s middle brother, Josh, is a firefighter with DuPont.

“This was like my dream department,” Jonathan Tinsley said. “I wanted to work for Lakewood my whole life.”

He said he especially liked how busy he stayed when he was a young firefighter there.

Just short of two years after he joined the Lakewood Fire Department (which merged with the University Place Fire Department in March 2011 to form West Pierce Fire), Tinsley was driving down Steilacoom Boulevard with his wife to a movie Halloween night 2006.

They saw two people run onto the road in front of them. They dismissed them as kids goofing off while trick-or-treating.

“As we got closer I could see it was two adults,” Tinsley said. “Now I’m looking — what the heck’s going on? — and I get closer and I see a guy beating this gal in the middle of the road.”

He told his wife to stop the car and leaped out before it came to a halt. He jumped onto the man, restraining him until police arrived.

A butcher knife had gone flying from the man’s hand, something Tinsley didn’t know until told by a friend who’d been following him to the movie theater.

One of Tinsley’s friends summoned Lakewood firefighters at the station across the street while another called 911. Tinsley’s wife tended to the woman, who survived five stab wounds.

“It was amazing she was able to live,” he said.

Mark Tinsley struggled to explain why his son rushes to help others despite personal risk, both as a firefighter and a citizen.

“All my boys do that,” he said. “There’s lots of people in the fire service who do that. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing. They go way beyond the job. It’s part of their life, and the more you do it, the more it becomes part of your life.”

And there’s the pin that says “valor” on Jonathan Tinsley’s uniform breast, now with three stars above it, a tribute to the bad things he’s tried to fix.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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