Chief Leader - June 08, 2019by BOB HENNELLY
Thousands of FDNY members filled City Hall Plaza June 5 to celebrate the Fire Department’s Annual Medal Day, when the agency hands out individual commendations for valor and recognizes teams whose cohesion produced heroic results.
The department handed 47 medals to 67 members of the service, including Firefighters, fire officers, Fire Marshals, Emergency Medical Service officers, paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians.
‘Heroes Are Right Here’
“In our nation, we look for heroes,” Mayor de Blasio told the gathering. “We go to the movies looking for heroes. We turn on our favorite sports event looking for heroes. But if you want to find some genuine heroes, look right here, ladies and gentlemen. They are right here in front of you.”
He invoked a “simple ancient idea” that “whoever saves a life saves the world. Whoever steps forward to same one human being creates that moment on behalf of all of humanity.”
The recurring theme throughout the ceremony, as Battalion Chief Mark Guerra delivered riveting individual accounts of the actions of each medal-winner, was the near-miraculous results that could be achieved when bravery was informed by situational awareness.
“Our job demands that every day in the FDNY we work hard to be better than you were the day before,” Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro told the crowd. “All of this training, this unwavering commitment—it culminated in the moments we celebrate today—times when the lives of their fellow New Yorkers hung in the balance and they rose to the occasion.”
Pulled 3 From Blaze
He continued. “Look no further than Gordon Bennett Medal recipient Lieut. Patrick Mataraza of Ladder 56. His incredible efforts to repeatedly enter a raging fire in the Bronx saved three lives, including the life of a small child.”
Mr. Nigro also singled out FDNY Paramedic Jacqueline Benelof of Station 14, the recipient of the Christopher J. Prescott Medal, “who was already treating one patient on a medical call, and then entered the smoke-filled top floor of an apartment building to rescue another person from a growing fire.”
The Commissioner noted that in the case of FDNY Paramedic Jonathan Rivera, this blend of courage and presence of mind earned him citations for responses he made in two widely divergent situations “once for his expert medical care of a patient struck and pinned under a cargo train…and another time for locating, treating, and helping to extricate a fellow first-responder trapped up to his chest in mud.”
While the celebrations recognized individuals who saved multiple lives, it also took note of intricate collaborations between units, like the March 11, 2018 nighttime underwater rescue of the occupants of a sightseeing helicopter that had crashed and was submerged in the East River with a water temperature of 40 degrees and a quick current.
Hero in Zero Visibility
That night, Firefighter Timothy B. O’Neill from Rescue 1 was transported to the crash scene by an FDNY Marine unit and encountered an inverted and submerged helicopter tied to a civilian tugboat.
He donned his scuba gear and according to the FDNY narrative was able to get access to the interior fuselage. Despite “numerous entanglement hazards,” he found his way, amid zero visibility, to the first victim, who was tethered to the aircraft by a full body harness.
“Using his hands as his eyes and relying on his training, the rescuer was able to locate a locking carabiner on the victim’s back and free him from the cabin,” according to the FDNY.
Firefighter O’Neill repeated this rescue three more times as the wreckage continued to swiftly drift some 70 blocks from where the rescue had gotten underway.
Also recognized for the events that night were Firefighters Jeffrey J. Saccomanno from Marine Company 6 and James P. Cahill from Rescue Company 1.
In an interview after the ceremony, Lieut. Mataraza, who received the FDNY’s highest honor for his March 5 response to a fire in progress at an apartment building, recounted how that night several tenants were trapped and the blaze from a first-floor apartment had fully engulfed the public hallway.
Front Door No Option
“When we got there, the circumstances presented themselves to us that we would need to take a different action than what would be our routine, which would be to go through the front door. It was total situational awareness,” he said, adding that with the help of Engine Co. 88 he and his crew from Ladder 56, he was able to improvise a second-story rescue.
Mr. Nigro’s words about the FDNY’s drive for continual improvement were borne out by the Lieutenant’s description of what set the stage for the flawless response that March night.
“Unfortunately, in December  there was a fatal fire on Prospect Ave., which was the same neighborhood that we respond to,” he said. “Fourteen people lost their lives. So ever since that fire that I wasn’t working, we drilled with the membership and we talked about what we would do if we were confronted with… a similar situation where the fire was on the first floor with numerous people trapped above.”
All of the medal winners interviewed recounted how there was no hint at the start of their heroic shifts what life-altering events the rest of the tour might hold.
“Working in the Fire Department in this city it is always a surprise when you come to work,” said Paramedic Rivera, a two-time medal-winner who previously was an Army combat medic. “You just hope for the best. With this kind of job, you got to be ready for anything.”