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The Bravest of the Brave Honored

This year’s Alexandria Valor Awards focused not only on the day-to-day service of the city’s public safety employees but also on the extraordinary efforts in which they were engaged on Sept. 11.

"This award means a lot to me personally, but I think it’s important to say that today is mostly about brotherhood and commitment. There are lots of unrecognized examples of valor every day. I’m being recognized because of the situation, but there are so many other police officers who would have done exactly the same thing I did in the same situation. It’s really about brotherhood,” said Officer Luis Torres, one of the silver medal winners at last week’s Valor Award Luncheon.

The awards are given to public safety employees who have performed their duties in an outstanding manner during the course of the previous year. The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and its business members sponsored the event.

This year, six public safety employees received awards.

PARAMEDIC MICHAEL CAHILL received this year's gold medal for his work at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Cahill was driving from his home in Frederick, Md., to Alexandria. He was listening to his car radio and heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. As he neared Alexandria, he saw the smoke coming from the attack on the Pentagon. He got as close as he could, parked his vehicle, put on his Army fatigues, grabbed his medical bag and began to provide assistance to victims.

“The victims came to me. It wasn’t enough. There were too many hurt. I tried to get them all in one area. With only one IV bag to cool the burns, I ran from patient to patient. I was assessing airways as I went. Five patients should have intubated right away, but there was just not enough equipment. An officer ran up to me and said that he had a woman that needed help. … I went to her and did what I could. I realized I couldn’t carry her. Her burns were too severe to drag her away from the building. I had to leave her and wait until I could find help. As the ambulances came in, I grabbed a backboard and three bystanders to retrieve the badly burned woman. The first patients I had gathered, maybe 12 by now, were being cared for and transported.

“Eventually I was tasked to set up treatment areas. We kept preparing, setting up and waiting. I began to realize that we were now hours into the incident and that I had not seen a patient since those initial ones. I had already treated every survivor that I was going to treat that day. As darkness fell, we watched the firefighters struggling with the flames. None of us wanted to leave, hoping somehow, some way, there was a protected room that they might find, some miracle story,” Cahill said, describing the incident.

SHERIFF'S DEPUTY AUDREY ECKRIDGE received a Lifesaving Certificate for her quick response to a person in distress. Eckridge was working at her post in the Alexandria Courthouse on June 15, 2001, when she saw that a clerk was choking and in distress. Eckridge went to provide assistance and discovered that the clerk had something lodged in her throat and was having difficulty breathing. Eckridge performed the Heimlich maneuver, dislodged a pill from the clerk’s throat and saved a life.

CAPT. JOHN NORTH won the Certificate of Valor Award. North was on his way to work at the Alexandria Fire Department when he saw a man walking erratically on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. He used his radio to call for help, stopped his own vehicle on the bridge and went to talk to the man. North asked the man if he was having car trouble and offered to give him a ride to get assistance. The man agreed, but just as he was about to get into North’s car, he ran, stepped over the safety railing and jumped from the bridge into the Potomac. It was Nov. 20, 2001, and the water was very cold. North directed rescuers with a flashlight to where the man was in the water. The victim was found and transported to the hospital. He recovered.

WILLIAM COATES is this year’s bronze medal winner. Coates, a new construction supervisor with the city’s Code Enforcement Department, was at the Bradlee shopping center on Oct. 11, 2001, when he saw a large group of high-school students. He heard screams from the students and also heard one of the students say that someone had a gun. He ran to the scene, tried to disperse the students and saw that two people were fighting and one of the individuals did have a gun. He was able to intervene to the point that the individual with the gun ran from the scene. Coates remained on the scene, got the students to disperse and waited for police. He did not have a weapon or any type of protective clothing. Without regard for his own safety, he took action that may well have saved lives.

OFFICERS PETER LABOY AND LUIS TORRES were on patrol, as usual, on Oct. 2, 2001, each in his own patrol car. Both officers heard the radio call that there had been a robbery at the A&A Pawnshop on Mount Vernon Avenue and that the suspects had fled. Laboy, who was on West Glebe Road at the time, saw a station wagon driving erratically going west on Glebe toward I-395. He turned around and began to pursue the vehicle, attempting to get the driver to stop. In the meantime, Torres got a description of the vehicle that had just fled the scene of the pawnshop robbery. The description matched the car that Laboy was attempting to stop. Torres got in front of the suspect vehicle and attempted to block it. The suspect swerved around Torres’ police car and the pursuit began. The two officers pursued the suspects onto I-395 and notified Arlington County. As the suspects were crossing the 14th Street Bridge into the District of Columbia, a passenger began firing a gun at the officers. D.C police joined the pursuit, and the suspects continued firing their weapon. Finally the gunman’s hand struck a parked car, and the gun fell. The vehicle came to a stop when it struck another car at a stoplight near the D.C Armory. Torres stayed with the driver, who was thrown from the suspect’s vehicle, while Laboy pursued the gunman, who was attempting to flee the scene. No one was seriously injured, in large part due to the careful manner in which the two officers pursued the suspects. They were awarded the silver medal.

U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8th) presented three special plaques to Police Chief Charles Samara, Fire Chief Thomas Hawkins and Sheriff Jim Dunning for their leadership.

“No organization can function effectively without having great leadership,” Moran said. “It starts and ends at the top. It is ultimately as good as that person at the top who bears the responsibility, the accountability and the authority. We want to recognize the three people at the top for who and what they are and who accept the responsibility for these organizations. Today, we want them to accept our gratitude for their service.”

The plaque read, in part, “Those who lead sacrifice and have brave vision: You are among the best.”