Everyone on the stage shared more than the fact that they were heroes. They carried a common thread of humility.
The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce last week honored 53 men and women for their valor. But before the recipients took the stage, they gathered with friends and family to remember their heroics. And one line surfaced repeatedly throughout the room. It went like this: "I didn't do anything more than anyone else would have in the same situation."
That sense of humility set the tone for the Valor Awards 2004 ceremony. The backdrop carried the words, "Valor, strength in mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness."
I.J. HUDSON, NBC NEWS4 technology reporter, presented the awards to policemen, firefighters, rescue workers and a citizen. As a news reporter, he said he has been there when firefighters carried people out of buildings and rescuers responded to a collapsed overpass. "I've been there when two police officers were shot," he said. "I keep saying, 'I've been there.' I've actually witnessed what you do. I'm simply here to say, 'Thank you.'"
The Bronze Medal of Valor went to Paul O'Brian, a cardiac technician with the Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad and Loudoun County Fire and Rescue. O'Brian woke up on Nov. 13 last year to the sound of a falling tree. Then he heard yelling, jumped out of bed, grabbed his medical kit and ran outside. His neighbor, a 14-year-old girl, was waiting for the bus at the end of her driveway when the 40-inch diameter tree and power lines fell. She was trapped underneath and bleeding profusely. The girl suffered a massive cut to her head and electrical burns. Bones were sticking out of her broken ankle.
O'Brian said he alerted emergency crews they would need a helicopter and a life support unit. To help the girl, he had to get around the fallen electrical wires. "I found an 18-inch hole. I crawled under the tree and wires," he said. "I immediately stopped the bleeding from both her head and the ankle."
As he was applying bandages, his 18-year-old daughter, Christina, drove near the house. She had taken her brother, Michael, 16, to school. He ordinarily would have been standing at the same bus stop as the 14-year-old girl. Christina, a member of the rescue squad, assisted her father. "As much as I would let her," he said, concerned that the electrical wires might injure his daughter.
THE CHAMBER recognized O'Brian for "acts involving significant personal risk and bravery. … Without this quick assistance, the outcome would have certainly been much different."
Deputy Sheriff First Class Lanny Dambaugh received a Meritorious Action Award for exemplary action while placing himself in a situation of personal risk. In August 2002, Dambaugh was on his way home from work when he learned of a road rage situation at a gas station in Sterling. A driver, who became angry when another driver tapped his brakes, grabbed a rifle. The other driver grabbed a stick and they fought. The angry driver returned the rifle to his vehicle and was assaulted. So he got the gun again and loaded it. That's when Dambaugh drove into the gas station lot. Dambaugh said he had an advantage, because his patrol car was green instead of the usual Sheriff's brown and he didn't have his emergency lights on. The drivers didn't realize he was a sheriff.
"I saw him smash a window with the barrel of the rifle," said Dambaugh, who drove right up to the angry driver, pointed a pistol and told him to drop his rifle. "He didn't have a choice," Dambaugh said. "Hey, it's a bad guy off the street. Turns out he was a convicted felon who had served time for armed robbery."
Sterling firefighters Jeremy Gay and Gregory Moore and Engine 11/Truck 11 of Loudoun County Fire and Rescue were honored for saving a woman's life last December. They learned a woman was trapped on the second floor of a burning house. Capt. Kevin Right presented a plan for Gay and Moore to search for the victim. Fire had risen from the first floor to the second, and the search was conducted in thick, dark smoke and extreme heat. In less than five minutes, they removed her from the burning building. "Due to the efforts of the initial responding units, a life was unmistakably saved," the Chamber wrote in a synopsis of the event.
Gay and Moore said they had never saved a woman from a fire before. "It happened so quick," Gay said. "I don't remember thinking anything but we had to go in and do what we do."
MOORE HAD been a firefighter for only five months. "I just hoped we would get her in time," he said. "The smoke in there was pretty thick."
Justin Whitman of Ashburn received a meritorious action award for helping a deputy sheriff pin down someone who had struck the officer. In November last year, Deputy Sheriff J. Sanford tried to subdue someone who was disorderly and combative in an Ashburn parking lot. He struck the deputy and a struggle followed. Whitman saw Sanford try to handcuff the man. He asked whether she needed help. Without regard for his own safety, Whitman helped hold down the man.
"Unfortunately, it is all too common to have citizens congregate near incidents like this and offer no assistance to law enforcement," the Chamber wrote. "Without Mr. Whitman's assistance, the incident could have quickly deteriorated and Mr. Whitman, the deputy and others could have been seriously injured."
Whitman said he could sense the situation was getting worse. "It's a shame that people feel they can't help out their officers when they are needed. When there is an accident, their first instinct might be to drive by. Mine is to get out and help. That was the way I was raised."
Sgt. Michael Buracker of the Leesburg Police Department received the Silver Medal of Valor. He was called to a Leesburg home in August 2002 to find a man had poured gasoline on his wife and threatened to set fire to everyone and everything in the house. Buracker, "without any regard to his own safety" got the family out. Buracker then heard the man try to ignite a lighter, chased him and caught him.
"Sgt. Buracker responded quickly and decisively to save the lives of not only the family members, but the suspect as well," the Chamber wrote.
SGT. MICHAEL AMATO of the Leesburg Police Department and Rick Peregrino, formerly a Leesburg police officer and now a Loudoun deputy sheriff, received meritorious action awards. They were investigating a sexual assault last August and entered a home to search for the man accused of the crime. "We didn't know what his state of mind was, what he was going to do," Amato said. "It was a very odd feeling. He wasn't anywhere. I thought he was going to hurt us, that he was waiting to hurt us."
They found him in the last place they checked: the bathroom. He had hung himself. Amato quickly lifted him, and Peregrino cut the rope. They saved his life.
Officer David Kackley and the Leesburg Police Department patrol team were honored for their work in subduing a man who was under the influence of alcohol and prescription medications and armed with an assault rifle. Kackley was able to talk the man into surrendering. "We were able to show him he could come out before the situation got worse," he said.
Kackley, who has been trained in negotiations, said he was concerned about his fellow officers. "Every one of those guys out there was in potential danger," he said. "They knew what their job was and did it well."
Fire and Rescue Lt. Sean Scott received a meritorious action award for saving a woman who was clinging to a tree in the midst of a bad storm. "I ran out and picked her up and carried her to the hospital," he said. "She was tattered, scared and pretty shaken up."
Firefighters Micah Kiger and Capt. Alan Williams were honored for trying to save three victims of a plane crash in March 2003. Even with a risk of explosion or fire, they continued with their rescue efforts. Only the passenger survived.
Kiger and Firefighter Capt. Daniel Smith also received lifesaving awards for rescuing two of three people seriously injured in a car crash the same month. They were on their way home after work when they saw the crash on Route 9.
Leesburg Officer David Orr was honored for saving a woman who lost consciousness in the midst of a domestic dispute. He initiated CPR and saved her life in September 2002.
Company 13 of the Loudoun County Volunteer Rescue Squad received valor awards for evacuating Leesburg nursing home residents from Heritage Hall. In February 2003, 120 residents needed to be moved because of an electrical hazard and the danger of a roof collapsing.
"THE PATIENTS varied from completely bed-ridden, hospice patients, to fully ambulatory Alzheimer's patients," the Chamber wrote. "This proved to be a very complex and challenging process and required immediate action."
Rod Huebblers, CEO of Loudoun Healthcare, main sponsor of the event, said none of these recipients woke up and decided they were going to be heroes that day. "They had a call," he said. "They risked everything for us."