A hero's welcome: Wilton firefighters honored for bravery

Burning buildings, burning cars, water rescues.

When it comes to the Fire Department, bravery is part of the job. But there are times when firefighters are called on to go above and beyond.

Members of the Wilton Fire Department who unstintingly answered that call were honored at an awards ceremony Wednesday evening, April 24, at Trackside.

Presented were:

• Meritorious Service Award.

• Medal of Valor.

• Special Commendation.

• Meritorious Unit Citation.

The ceremony, which was sponsored by the Wilton Rotary Club, began with a moment of silence to honor the volunteer firefighters lost in the West, Texas, explosion earlier this month along with the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

In addition to family, friends and members of both the fire and police departments, those recognizing the evening’s heroes were First Selectman Bill Brennan, Fire Chief Paul Milositz, Deputy Fire Chief Mark Amatrudo, Police Chief Michael Lombardo, Deputy Police Chief Robert Crosby, Fire Commission Chairman Gary Mecozzi, and Fire Commissioners Troy-Ellen Dixon and Richard McCarty.

“This event recognizes our firefighters, but it is rewarding to see so many police officers here as well,” Mr. Brennan said in opening remarks.

“When we think of recent horrific events … we realize how important our safety officials are.” He reminded the audience that “they serve us 24/7 every day of the year. They are there when called to an emergency.

“Our police and firefighters work closely together. That’s what makes our town a great team.”

Before presenting the awards, Chief Milositz paid tribute to former Fire Commissioner Casey Healy, who stepped down earlier this year, thanking him for his advocacy for the Fire Department.

Water rescue

The first honor — a Meritorious Service Award — was given for an incident that was overlooked during preparations for the department’s previous awards presentation.

It was for a swift water rescue that occurred on April 23, 2006.

The weather that day, Mr. Amatrudo recalled, was a “nonstop torrential downpour” that caused heavy flooding and swollen streams. A call came in at 11:48 reporting “a person in the stream on Sharp Hill with his head just above water.”

An elderly homeowner had been out trying to move some large branches in his driveway that were pushing water toward his house. In trying to change the course of the water with a branch, he fell into the frigid stream. As the current pulled him further in, he managed to jam the branch into some rocks and hold his position, but when Engine 1 and Truck 5 responded, it was clear he was in danger of being swept downstream.

He would have been swept “over a low head dam which runs under Sharp Hill, and would have continued to be quickly dragged through the numerous large rocks onto the rapids below. A situation that most likely would have taken the man’s life,” Mr. Amatrudo said.

Firefighter Brad Carlson had firefighters Brian Elliott and Daniel Lewis don water rescue suits and then Mr. Elliott was secured to a rope that was then wrapped around a tree and held in place by members of the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

Fighting the current, Mr. Elliott was able to make his way to the man in the stream and the two were pulled to shore and out of the water.

“The victim was evaluated by Wilton EMS and Medic 500 for possible injuries. With no apparent trauma, he was taken inside to a warm shower and re-evaluated,” Mr. Amatrudo said, eliciting a laugh from the audience.

For his efforts, Mr. Elliott was awarded the Meritorious Service Award, a Class III commendation. Because of a previous obligation, he was not on hand to receive his award.

Burning car

For their heroic acts in helping to extricate a driver from a massive car fire on the evening of Oct. 9, 2012, firefighters Jeff Locher and Bill Wilson were awarded the Medal of Valor. The Fire Department also awarded a special commendation to police Sgt. Thomas Tunney.

Sgt. Tunney was the first emergency responder to reach the car on Hurlbutt Street. The car was lying on its side, driver side down, with its driver trapped inside. Sgt. Tunney immediately attempted to keep the fire at bay by using fire extinguishers from his police cruiser.

Truck 5 was already on the road when the call came in at 6:18 p.m., and in less than five minutes from when the call was dispatched, Mr. Amatrudo said, firefighters Locher and Wilson had their extinguishers out and were also attacking the fire. Making their job more difficult was the fact that the car was under a downed tree and the driver was partially under the burning car.

Working with Sgt. Tunney and other police officers, they had the driver out of the car less than three minutes after arriving.

“They did so while exposed to severe fire conditions without the protection of a hose line,” Mr. Amatrudo said. “It was reported that various small explosions were heard and the flames from the burning vehicle extended over 20 feet into the air.

“If not for the efforts of Sgt. Tunney and firefighters Locher and Wilson, the patient surely would have suffered fatal injuries,” Mr. Amatrudo said. He reminded the audience that while Mr. Locher and Mr. Wilson had the benefit of their protective fire gear, Sgt. Tunney was likely dressed as he was Wednesday evening, in his shirtsleeves. For his heroic efforts on this call, Sgt. Tunney was named Officer of the Year in the Police Department’s awards ceremony last month.

The events of Oct. 9 also led to the awarding of the Meritorious Unit Citation.

As Sgt. Tunney and Mr. Locher and Mr. Wilson worked to rescue the driver, Lt. Greg Kitik and firefighter Bill Sampson arrived at the scene in Engine 3. Within a minute they had a hose line deployed to contain and then put out the fire. Mr. Wilson used a chain saw to cut through the brush so the driver could be carried up to the street, while Mr. Locher and others administered first aid.

Immediately before that, Mr. Amatrudo said, “Lt. Thomas Cassin and firefighter John Krozer arrived on Engine 2. Lt. Cassin established command and assisted with the transfer of the patient up to the street, while firefighter Krozer searched for a possible other passenger.”

The Wilton Volunteer Ambulance and paramedic arrived, took over patient care and took the driver to Norwalk Hospital. He was later transferred to the burn center at Bridgeport Hospital.

“When we arrived on the scene, both the engine and passenger compartment were on fire,” Mr. Locher told The Bulletin the day after the incident.

“It was a serious accident,” he said. “All things considered, it could have gone the other way.”

He added that the police officers on the scene were key to the driver’s survival.

Returning the praise, Sgt. Tunney said at the time, “The fire guys were phenomenal. You couldn’t see the road once you were down [in the woods] looking up. I can’t say enough about them.”

Of a fire call Mr. Locher said, “You never know what you’re going to come upon. You try to get your game plan and plan of attack in your head while en route.

“This was definitely a harder rescue situation because of where the vehicle was, the damage to the car and the fact there was an occupant inside.”

“It was a full crew effort,” Sgt. Tunney said, “including the guys on the desk. It was a phenomenal job across the board.”

Mr. Amatrudo echoed that sentiment when he said, “Successful rescue efforts are and always will be a team sport. On-duty members, working together as a team, are the bedrock of an effective and coordinated fire attack that can save a life.”

In closing the ceremony, Chief Milositz congratulated all members of Wilton’s fire department for the work they do every day.

“To their families, you should be proud of them. They do their job professionally on a daily basis to help out their fellow man,” he said. “To all of you, I say thank you for supporting them so that they can serve our community.”