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Domestic violence victim calls Dallas firefighter ‘an angel’ after ex set her on fire last year

Dallas Fire-Rescue recognized the crew member for saving the woman’s life after he jumped from a fire engine and used his coat to put out flames.

A Dallas firefighter was recognized Monday for his heroic acts after playing a part in saving the life of a woman who was set on fire by her ex-boyfriend last year.

Firefighter Peter Hartnett of Dallas Fire-Rescue’s Engine 28 said that when they got word of an aggravated assault in May 2018, he didn’t think the incident would need the crew’s help.

“We didn’t have our gear on because we didn’t think there was going to be a fire,” he said. “All we knew is that it was an aggravated assault.”

But when they arrived, the crew found a man standing near a woman who had been doused in kerosene and set on fire.

“It was just like in one of those movies,” Hartnett said. “It was a blob of fire and all you could see were her feet.”

The woman was Danyeil Townzen, now 41. She had been set on fire by her ex-boyfriend, Matthew Gerth.

Danyeil Townzen pets her service dog, Cowboy. The pair was reunited after nearly 17 months apart. (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News)
Danyeil Townzen pets her service dog, Cowboy. The pair was reunited after nearly 17 months apart. (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News) (Juan Figueroa / Staff photographer)

Hartnett said the fire engine was having trouble that day, so instead of immediately spraying Townzen with water, he jumped off the truck and wrapped his new firefighting coat around her. He and a rookie firefighter patted her down and sprayed her with water until the flames went out. Townzen said she had been on fire for 8 minutes.

Hartnett said his coat had Townzen’s burnt hair, blood, skin and “chunks of tissue” on it. The smell of the burnt flesh was so strong that the team had to go through three hours of decontamination.

Before paramedics arrived and she fell unconscious, Townzen was able to tell the engine crew her name, the location of her dog, Cowboy, and her ex-husband’s name. She also identified Gerth, who quickly tried to flee in his car.

Hartnett said he tried to pull him out, but Gerth reversed the car, pinning Hartnett to the door. Hartnett was able to escape after Gerth stopped to avoid hitting another vehicle.

Townzen suffered burns on 75% of her body and was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Hartnett received a call 13 months later to testify in what he thought would be Gerth’s murder trial.

To his surprise, the trial was for aggravated assault — Townzen was alive. She had been a coma for five months and received treatment in Parkland’s burn unit. In total, Townzen had been hospitalized for a year.

Gerth pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in September. It took Judge Lela Mays less than 20 minutes to sentence him.

During Hartnett’s recognition ceremony, which was led by Fire Chief Dominique Artis, Townzen said Hartnett was “an angel” who arrived that day “solely to save my life.”

“I don’t know what I would have done without you,” she said to Hartnett. “I would not be here.”

Nataly Keomoungkhoun, Engagement reporter. Nataly is the lead writer on Curious Texas. She is a D-FW native with a B.A. in emerging media and communication from the University of Texas at Dallas and an M.S. in journalism from the University of Southern California. She also likes art, a lot.

nataly.keomoungkhoun@dallasnews.com @natalykeo

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