When then-Placentia Police Officer Sarah Shirvany pulled up to the intersection at Orangethorpe and Miller on February 2, 2008, the scene was utter chaos. Metal scraps and debris filled the dark street. Being in an industrial area of the neighboring city of Anaheim, she assumed this was nothing more than a traffic hazard.
A closer examination showed her initial reaction was wrong. Looking around, Shirvany had the terrible realization that this was a traffic accident. There was no discernable part of a car left, but there was no doubt these scraps were the decimated remains of a vehicle.
Just south of the wreckage, Shirvany found a young man lying in the street. He was a mess of mangled, bloody limbs going in unnatural directions. Because of the extent of his injuries, she thought he might be dead.
Then, as she turned to call it in, a voice called out weakly, “Is somebody there?”
The sound startled her.
“I don’t want to die alone,” he said. Shifting all her focus to the young man, Shirvany responded, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Don’t let go of my hand,” he said as additional officers and paramedics arrived.
“Hang in there, I got you. Don’t give up,” she said. He squeezed her hand tighter.
Through her own overwhelming emotions, Shirvany offered words of encouragement. She comforted the boy as if he was her own son. She only had minutes with him.
The man’s name was Chris Perales, 23, of Placentia. He and a friend had taken his dad’s yellow 2006 Corvette out for a joyride while his parents were out of town for the weekend. The ride ended abruptly when Perales tried to make a turn at 120 mph, losing control of the vehicle and crashing into a light pole.
The friend walked away from the crash, but Perales’ condition was much worse.
Thinking these could be his last moments, Shirvany offered him words of encouragement and hope, silently praying to herself that he would make it. She thought to herself: “This is someone’s kid.”
Then, something odd caught her attention. Next to Perales’ head, she found a small golden statue of an angel. Its placement was strangely perfect amidst the chaos of the night.
“That little statue stands out the most,” Shirvany said. For her, it was a symbol of hope; a chance that Perales would pull through.
And just like that, their moment was over.
As the ambulance arrived, Officer Tom Poer of the Anaheim Police Department stepped in to ride with Perales to the hospital.
“Hey, take care of this kid,” Shirvany said before they drove off.
Shirvany then made a call to inform Perales’ parents of the crash.
During the call, she brought up the angel, wondering where it had come from. The golden angel had belonged to Perales’ recently deceased grandmother. It had come home with them after her funeral and must have gotten lost in the car.
“I think your mother was watching over Chris,” she told his father.
At the end of her shift, Shirvany stopped by the hospital to check on Perales. She was not allowed inside to visit him. The medical staff informed her that his condition was critical. He was on a ventilator and had sustained significant injuries from the accident. Shirvany left thinking Perales would not survive.
“Some calls stick with you,” said Shirvany, now retired. That accident stuck with her for the rest of her career.
Nine years passed. Shirvany transferred to the Anaheim Police Department. She sustained work-related injuries and had to medically retire — all while never forgetting about Chris Perales.
Just before she retired, Shirvany got into a conversation with a property technician at the police department. She shared her story about the accident, Chris, and the angel.
A few hours later, the property technician put a file down on the table in front of her.
Staring up at Shirvany was a familiar face — older — but still him.
It was Perales. He was alive.
“I lost my s***,” Shirvany said She was overwhelmed by the revelation.
Perales had spent 26 days in the hospital, underwent seven surgeries, suffered from an accidental drug overdose while in the hospital, and spent four months doing physical therapy before he could walk again.
After deliberating for some time, in January 2018, Shirvany reached out to Perales on Facebook. She sent a long message explaining who she was, how meaningful their encounter was, and how overjoyed she was that he pulled through.
Three days later, he responded.
“I am very thankful you were one of my first responders,” he said. “You (gave) me a sense of comfort at my most desperate moment.”
Sharing the story from that night is emotional for Perales. It’s not the trauma, the pain, or the accident, but “the compassion” of Shirvany, this stranger, that moved him.
Perales’ family also began to connect with her. They invited her to their home to meet in person and thank her. After some consideration, Shirvany accepted their invitation.
Their reunion ended up being more healing than either of them imagined. Shirvany talked about how inspired she was by Perales. He overcame so much.
“He is a survivor,” she said. Perales believed their meeting brought him closure from the accident.
During their visit, Perales’ father showed Shirvany a family photo and said, “if it wasn’t for you, that part of our family tree would be missing.”
A touched Shirvany said, “I was no one special. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”Both Perales and Shirvany remember the night of the accident as one that shaped their lives forever. Their interaction did not last long. Yet, to have a compassionate human being there in the most painful and terrifying moments of life meant everything.
For Shirvany, the angel in the crash gave her hope so she could move on to the next call. For Perales, the kindhearted police officer gave him hope to move on from one of his hardest nights.Perales hopes that for anyone who may experience the compassion of a first-responder, “that person could be your Sarah.”