NUTLEY / ELIZABETH, NJ — Michael Barrett, the EMS supervisor of the Elizabeth Fire Department, as well as a member of the Nutley Emergency Rescue Squad, showed heroism in February when he fearlessly rushed into a burning apartment building and saved a disoriented Elizabeth resident who had sustained first- and second-degree burns. The off-duty EMS supervisor’s quick thinking saved the person’s life. In recognition of Barrett’s heroism, the Nutley Rotary Club honored him at the Nutley Emergency Rescue Squad building with the Nutley EMT of the Year Award on Saturday, April 24.
“I am being given the EMT of the Year Award for an off-duty save in the city of Elizabeth,” Barrett said April 24. “I’m an EMS supervisor in the city of Elizabeth Fire Department, and I was leaving my shift. I work a noon to midnight shift, and I was on my way home from work at midnight. I noticed an apartment building that was on fire. It just happened to be the one bedroom that caught my eye, for some reason, and, when I pulled up in front of the building, I noticed the room was on fire but there were no smoke alarms or fire alarms going off. I called my dispatch center, because it was in my city. I told them there was a working fire.
“I parked my car up the road, so I wasn’t blocking any apparatus, and I started to go around the building, knocking on doors and ringing doorbells, to alert anyone inside of the building,” he continued. “I found an open door in the back of the building with some smoke coming from the stairs, so I just went up the stairs, to the point where I’m yelling, ‘If anyone is there, can you hear me?’ I got up to the top of the staircase and there was a smoke level about a foot off the ground. I had a flashlight, shined it and didn’t see anyone, while I was yelling that the building was on fire and to leave the building.”
It wasn’t until when he was about to leave the building that Barrett said he found someone. After a brief struggle, Barrett was able to get himself and the victim to a safe place.
“I was about to turn around and get out when I shined my light back down the hallway and I saw a pair of sneakers walk by through the smoke,” Barrett said. “I yelled at whomever it was at the time that the building was on fire and they needed to leave, but he didn’t respond. I ran up the stairs and found him. He was a little resistant to come out. I didn’t know if it was because he was inhaling smoke or couldn’t see. I removed him from the building and got him outside. I noticed that his hands were burned and his skin was peeling.
“I called for dispatch again and told them I had a burn victim and requested a medic unit,” he continued. “He said someone else was still inside the building, who was found in the basement of the building by firemen. I brought him to the front of the building, but, by then, I started suffering from the smoke inhalation from getting him out. The fire units came and they pulled me aside, because I was coughing and was suffering from the smoke inhalation. I went to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation for a few hours and then I went home.
“The gentleman that I removed was taken to Saint Barnabas Burn Center for first- and second-degree burns on his hands and legs, and first- and second-degree burns on his face and neck. After I pulled him out and brought him to the front of the building, I didn’t see him after that, because I was out of commission, coughing and spitting up smoke, and they got me out of the way while help was arriving,” he added.
According to Barrett, the man who was found in the basement of the building had just stepped out of the shower and wasn’t aware that the room above him was on fire. Another person was removed through a second-floor window with the help of a ladder truck.
Barrett, not the biggest fan of the spotlight, said he doesn’t think of himself as a hero. But the story has gained a life of its own on social media. Due to his heroics, Barrett has been nominated for the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Valor Award and other accolades.
“‘A hero’ is what everyone is calling me,” Barrett said. “I called it in soon enough that people got there before the fire broke out and spread through the rest of the building. They got the other victims out. It’s been overwhelming, because everyone has Facebook, and they created a Facebook post and this story spread like wildfire. It went everywhere and was shared probably 1,000 times.”
Barrett said that, in addition to being nominated for the FMBA Valor Award and being named Nutley EMT of the Year, he received a resolution from Elizabeth for his actions that day. Although he’s thankful for the recognition, he insists it isn’t necessary, pointing out that people are trying to save lives every day in hospitals, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Nutley Rotary Club President Dorothy Huey said that when she heard about Barrett’s valiant efforts, she knew he deserved to be honored.
“There’s a new award to recognize and honor heroes in our community,” Huey said April 24. “I didn’t know of any heroes, so I put it out to my club, and John (Monaco) was the only one that knew about Mike Barrett rescuing someone from a burning building. He took charge and applied for the award from the district and we received it. I think it’s something that’s wonderful, especially in this time when we need something uplifting to distract us from everything that’s been going on.
“We’re having a virtual district conference in May, and we’re going to send pictures to them and they’re going to make a video with other heroes from other clubs and honor them at the virtual Zoom conference,” she continued. “Hopefully, he’ll be watching at that time and be recognized. He’s invited, and they want him to be on there.”
Nutley Rotary Club Vice President–elect John Monaco, who organized the small ceremony and applied for the award, said Barrett’s heroism came of no surprise to him.
“I’ve known Michael for over 40 years, and this doesn’t surprise me,” Monaco said April 24. “His heart is just his heart. He didn’t think about himself; he thought about saving lives, and he put his whole adrenaline forward and he went for it. I give him a great deal of credit, because he could’ve really suffered problems. But to save a life and do what he did, he deserves it all.
“When I read about what he had done, that’s when I brought it to the club, and, since he is a member of the squad, I felt we should honor him also,” he continued. “It’s amazing that he did what he did, and he ended up in the hospital for smoke inhalation. He refused to stay overnight and walked out. But that’s Mike. He wanted to get back. He’s good people and he deserves it.”
Barrett’s wife, Michelle Barrett, said she was proud of her husband, adding that, while she understands why he isn’t partial to the limelight, he deserves the praise due to his fearlessness.
“This is way out of his comfort league, and he would not want to be recognized and I’m just really glad that he is,” she said April 24. “He has always been a hero, and I’m just glad people are now seeing it for themselves.
“I work in the field as well and it’s just a job for us to do,” she continued. “We love what we do, so we don’t feel as if we’re being a hero. We’re just doing a job, just like everyone else does. But I am very proud of him.”
Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman