ELIZABETHTOWN – They’re not exactly what you would call hardened criminals, but they are serving serving time in the Bladen County Law Enforcement Center jail. And if they ever had an opportunity to escape, Wednesday was that chance.

And something surely not lost of Sheriff James McVicker.

“These are good men,” McVicker was saying Thursday after awarding the three inmates with life-saving awards, “and they showed it with their actions.”

Frank Edens Jr., Rosendo Morales-Sanchez and Roy William Smith are vetted inmates, or trustees, who work Monday through Friday, each picking up trash along Bladen County roadways. And Wednesday was just another day on the job to reduce their jail time, with their supervisor James Smith following along behind them on Peanut Plant Road.

“We were picking up trash and he was behind us, and I heard something,” says Edens, 28, a Raeford native who says he has been incarcerated 8 months, with another year on his sentence, for a driving while impaired conviction. “He was stumbling and fell in a ditch.”

Edens says he rushed to the guard’s aid.

“I went to help him up,” Edens says. “He couldn’t get his balance, and I said, ‘Sit back down.’ He couldn’t sit up straight. I thought he was dehydrated.”

Morales-Sanchez, 42, who says has served four months with two months remaining, and Roy Smith rushed to help, too.

“The only thing I could think was to hold him up from falling further in the ditch,” says Smith, 37, who is from Fayetteville and says he has served 4 months behind bars, with 7 more to serve, for a DWI conviction. “I didn’t want him falling in because it would have hurt him.”

The inmates grabbed Smith’s cell phone, according to the Sheriff’s Office, called 911 and waited until law enforcement and emergency medical personnel arrived. Smith was transported to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville and then transferred to Duke Medical Center in Durham.

“He suffered a stroke,” Maj. Larry Guyton, the chief deputy and spokesman with the Sheriff’s Office says, “and is in ICU.”

While officers and the office chaplain was visiting the stricken Smith on Thursday in Durham, the three inmates were receiving life-saving awards from the sheriff at the Bladen County Law Enforcement Center for their quick response in getting medical attention for the guard, who works part-time supervising the roadside clean-up inmates.

“It was surprising,” Smith, the inmate, says about the award. “I wasn’t expecting nothing like that.”

All of the inmates are serving in misdemeanor confinement, according to the Sheriff’s Office, and Edens and Roy Smith say they never gave the first thought to abandoning the struggling officer.

“No,” Edens says.

Not the first inkling, Roy William Smith says. Not the first thought.

“I was too worried about helping him,” he says. “I didn’t sleep none that night worrying about him.”

Frank Edens Jr., Rosendo Morales-Sanchez and Roy William Smith have made their misjudgments along life’s way, and doing their time for the errors of their ways. But they have certainly earned the praise of the Bladen County sheriff and all in his department.

“I am so proud of these men and what they did to help our officer,” McVicker says. “It means more than I can say that they stood by him and did not leave him. These are good men and they showed it with their actions.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at bkirby@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3571