UNION COUNTY, NJ — On any given day police and firefighters throughout the country put their lives in jeopardy, forgetting about their own safety as they barrel their way into burning buildings and place themselves in the line of gunfire to ensure the public is protected.
Recently, some of the county’s bravest were honored for this valor in the line of duty and under some of the most trying of circumstances.
Each year the 200 Club honors police and firefighters for bravery at the annual Valor Awards luncheon. From year to year the circumstances may change, but there is never a lack of awards to go around.
This year 14 police and firemen from Union, Elizabeth and Cranford were the recipients of awards for decisions they made in split seconds that changed the lives of others.
In Cranford, when a fire erupted on the fifth floor of the Cranford Towers Condominium building on Springfield Avenue on Aug. 20, 2014, former fire chief Leonard Dolan reported eight towns responded to the mutual aid call that went out at 2:50 p.m. But, by the time firefighters and police arrived, the fifth floor was already engulfed in smoke and fire and smoke could be seen pouring from the fifth-floor windows facing Springfield Avenue.
But it was Lt. Edward Davenport and Det. Russell Luedecker of the Cranford Police Department who went beyond the call of duty that day to ensure not only an elderly man was carried down to safety but everyone in the building was evacuated.
The confused elderly man, who tried to put out the fire consuming his kitchen, was carried to safety on the shoulders of Davenport down five flights of stairs, while Luedecker, a trained firefighter, shut the condo door behind them, a move firefighters said would prevent the blaze from spreading.
All of the occupants of the building were evacuated to a gym at a church across the street while the elderly man was treated for smoke inhalation.
Cranford Police Chief James Wozniak praised his officers for their bravery, noting the two never feared the potential life-threatening conditions confronting them.
“They put the needs of the residents of that building above their own needs,” Wozniak said at the awards, pointing out that the two police officers “were faced with making decisions in a split second to save human life in conditions of fire and smoke but never wavered in their efforts.”
Elizabeth firefighters Oscar Barreto and Dean Melachrinos were in a similar situation when a fire broke out in a house on June 25, 2014. A woman’s life was saved because of the actions of these firefighters, who faced an inferno that was consuming the three-story brick home and quickly spread to homes on either side.
Although residents were home in each of the houses, firefighters were able to easily get everyone out except for a 55-year-old woman who remained trapped in the attic of the house where the blaze began.
Firefighters propped a 35-foot ladder on the house and Barreto, who was not wearing a mask, climbed to the attic where he smashed the window in order to get to the woman.
Working with one foot on the ladder and the other propped on the gutter, smoke pouring out of the window and into his face, the firefighter, with the help of Melachrinos, was able to guide the woman onto the ladder and down to safety.
“If it wasn’t for the actions of these two firefighters, this victim would not be here today,” said Elizabeth Fire Chief Tom McNamara, hailing the two firefighters for “extraordinary work, aggressiveness and determination in trying to save a life.”
In Union, Police Officers Thomas Florio and Peter Simon were honored for the Dec.14, 2014, arrest of a Massachusetts knife-wielding man who committed four township robberies in one weekend.
The two officers approached the Mercedes Benz on Morris Avenue that had been used in the recent robberies, including one that occurred minutes before in the parking lot of the Buy Rite Liquor Store down the road. The victims reported the man who robbed them had a knife, demanded money and then fled in a Mercedes Benz.
Minutes later Florio and Simon, who had been working in plainclothes in an unmarked car while investigating the recent robberies, saw the Mercedes Benz and used their vehicle to block the car. Meanwhile, a man approached the vehicle and the officers tried to stop him and a struggle ensued.
During the struggle one of the officers was punched and the man pulled out a five-inch knife and threatened to kill the police officers. Despite the danger, the knife was promptly knocked out of his hand. Another officer arrived on the scene at this point and used pepper spray, but it had no effect on the suspect. He was eventually handcuffed and arrested.
“These officers showed great courage by confronting a man who had been on a robbery spree,” said Union Deputy Chief Rick Landolfi, adding that the two “used excellent tactics and restraint when refraining from using deadly force when he threatened to kill the officers.”
Elizabeth Police Officer Jorge Hidalgo was the recipient of a valor award for his response to a domestic incident June 29, 2014, that ended with the fatal shooting of a suspect who lunged at the officer with a knife.
A woman had called police for help because her drunk boyfriend had beaten her, but he ran away before being apprehended. Later the same day police were called to the home again where Hidalgo found the couple struggling in the driveway, the man wielding a knife.
The police officer pleaded with the man to put down the knife, but the man said he would kill the officer first.
“Jorge Hidalgo was left with no choice,” said Police Chief Patrick Shannon, adding “Jorge Hidalgo saved that woman’s life.”
In another Elizabeth incident involving an auto part theft and shootout with police April 18, 2014, Officers John Callahan, Anthony Chodan, Craig Lovett and Leonardo Nunes along with Detectives Raul Del Prida, Jose Martinez, Richard Hernandez and Todd Kelly received valor awards for their response in this incident that involved a gunfight and police chase.
Four men suspected of stealing valuable car parts from an auto salvage yard in the city ended up exchanging gunfire with police officers along routes 1 and 9 as rush hour traffic got underway.
Although the driver of the truck tried to get away, weaving through traffic and city streets, firing at the officers, they continued the chase, returning gunfire. The truck and police car crashed on north Avenue between Routes 1 and 9 and the suspects tried to escape, but they were apprehended thanks to the quick thinking of all the officers involved.
Police recovered an automatic rifle, a submachine gun and three handguns, along with a bag of money.
Also recovered was $14,500 in cash and $250,000 worth of auto parts containing platinum.