When Dave Heeb joined the Columbus Police Department in 1981, the young officer had dreams of saving the world.

But 10 years later — on May 17, 1991 — came an experience that Heeb said he will never forget, no matter how hard he tries.

That was the day an Indianapolis man who lost custody of his children ended a multi-county pursuit on Interstate 65 by stopping south of Columbus and setting his van on fire — with both his 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son inside.

While the boy escaped with only minor injuries, Heeb — a member of the Emergency Response Team at the time — recalls how critically burned the girl was.

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Although she survived — and even invited him to her birthday party the next year — Lt. Heeb said the experience of seeing a innocent child in senseless agony still affects him to this day.

But there have also been some uplifting and rewarding moments in his long career, said Heeb, 58.

For example, a couple he didn’t remember once approached Heeb to thank him for his kindness and encouragement. When Heeb asked what he had done, he learned he had once encouraged the husband to seek treatment for his alcoholism in order to save his marriage.

“They told me the husband ended up going to rehabilitation, and as a result, they had managed to remain together for over 10 years,” Heeb said.

Some of his fondest memories reflect on the 11 years he served on the department’s former Emergency Response Team, Heeb said.

Not only did the assignment teach him a variety of useful skills, it also made him feel he was making a difference in the lives of others, the retired officer said.

But the establishment of precise procedures that officers must follow did occasionally leave Heeb feeling his hands were being tied, he said.

The frustration is especially tough when everything is done by the book, but a case still falls apart.

When that happens, victims and others often become critical, Heeb said. Those situations are hardest on rookie officers, he said.

Now in retirement, Heeb said he realizes how naive he was in his younger days to believe one officer cannot change the world.

“You can just try to save a little part that you are involved with,” Heeb said. “And when that happens, you’ve won.”

But those small victories often carried a big price — and not just for him, the veteran officer said.

A father of two adult children, Heeb said he only now realizes how many sacrifices his family and friends also had to make for his career.

Although he is continuing to do landscaping and yard work, Heeb said he is actively seeking an additional position that involves helping others.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.