The two NYPD officers shot at point-blank range while patrolling a Bronx housing project stairwell are speaking for the first time about the harrowing moments before and after the shooting in an exclusive interview with NBC 4 New York, saying it's a miracle they survived.
"I can’t believe I am sitting here today. It really is nothing short of a miracle," said Officer Patrick Espeut, who was shot in the face.
Espeut and his partner Diara Cruz, along with a third officer, were conducting a vertical patrol inside the Melrose Houses on Feb. 3 when they encountered the gunman and began questioning him.
He fired in an instant.
"It all happened so fast,” said Espeut, 29. “The only images I remember were him pulling the gun and the flash of the muzzle going off.”
Espeut was hit in the face, the bullet traveling through his nose and then ricocheting off bone and exiting out the side of his skull -- without striking his brain.
Cruz, 24, was hit in the abdomen just below her bulletproof vest. She didn't even realize she'd been shot because she was busy trying to push a second civilian in the stairwell out of the line of fire.
When the firing stopped, Cruz said the man told her, "You know you are bleeding."
"That’s when I realized I had been shot," she said.
The officers had been patrolling the Melrose Hosues because of a string of recent nighttime robberies. In the stairwell, Cruz heard two men talking one flight up, and she and officer Espeut approached.
"I asked them for IDs. They were compliant," she said.
Malik Chavis was one of the two men drinking beer in the stairwell. His ID showed a different address, and he told the officers he was staying with his girlfriend in a 7th-floor apartment. The officers said they wanted to go with him to the apartment to verify he had a right to be in the building.
As they walked up the stairs, Cruz noticed Chavis’s hands were in his waistband.
"I noticed he was walking up the stairs funny. His hand was in the waistband so when we got to the top, I told him to remove his hands," Cruz said.
"At that moment, he fired," she said.
Espeut said he was knocked to the ground by the force of the first shot and he blacked out as Cruz radioed for help.
Meanwhile, Chavis, who had 12 prior arrests, fled to his girlfriend's apartment, where he fatally shot himself, shouting, "I just shot a cop, I'm not going back to jail," witnesses later told police.
Espeut quickly regained consciousness and noticed the blood pouring from his face and the side of his head.
"I remember keeping pressure on my head to limit the bleeding. I walked down the steps. I didn’t know what to think," Espeut said. "I didn’t want to die."
Then he saw his injured partner Cruz lying in the stairwell. Each officer became concerned seeing the bullet wounds the other had suffered.
"I did not know where she was shot but I was worried she could bleed out," Espeut said.
In the emergency room, they were next to each other for a short time but they told each other they would be OK.
"It’s amazing. It could have been bad," Cruz said. "We got lucky."
The two officers have been on the job two years. Cruz, a Bronx native, is the first in her family to become a police officer and is now pursuing a criminal justice degree at John Jay College. The day she was sworn in as an officer at Madison Square Garden was "a dream come true."
"I always wanted to become a police officer for as long as I can remember," she said. "There was always something about wanting to help people."
Espeut, who's originally from Putnam County and also serves in the military, said he joined the NYPD to try to make a difference.
"I'm a little older, I've had a lot of different jobs and I've always had the same problem where it's tough to care about certain jobs," he said. "I wanted a job where I would feel some sort of fulfillment at the end of the day, where I felt like I was doing something good with my life and for other people."
Espeut and Cruz began working together in the Bronx in August 2015.
"There's a lot of crime, but there's also a lot of great people there and they need people to look out for them. So I consider myself lucky to have been placed in housing in the Bronx," he said.
Recovery for both officers is ongoing. Cruz said she is getting stronger each day after the bullet tore through her midsection and the surgery that followed. Espeut still suffers from head pain, but he knows he is lucky the bullet did not hit any major artery or any part of his brain.
Even though it was a close call, both officers say they are eager to get back to work.
"I definitely believe there was some higher power there that night looking out for both of us. That’s the only explanation that the two of us can be sitting here talking to you as well as we are," Espeut said.