Medal Day is the name given by the FDNY to the annual event honoring those in its ranks who are at their very best when things are at their very worst.
And the 2013 ceremony, which took place in Manhattan last month, prominently featured the members and units who saved dozens of residents from the sea and a firestorm last October when Hurricane Sandy unleashed her full fury on the Rockaway Peninsula.
Lt. Thomas Woods, assigned to Ladder Co. 154 in Jackson Heights, received the James Gordon Bennett Medal — the highest honor given out at the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory — for leading the rescue of more than 25 neighbors along with his own family as fire engulfed first his block and then his home in Belle Harbor.
According to the citation, obtained through the FDNY’s website, Woods, off duty when the storm hit, saw the fires coming closer to his home, fanned by 80-mile-per-hour winds.
Leading his own family to safety, Woods, along with his son, assisted neighbors from their homes into kayaks, guided two parents and their three children to safety out of the fire’s path, paddled down a street under more than six feet of water to help a family rescue a wheelchair-bound relative from a burning house, and rescued an elderly couple trapped on their porch between floodwaters and the fire destroying their home.
He led two groups on a six-block journey through downed trees, downed utility poles and floating automobiles.
The FDNY said Woods is only the third off-duty firefighter to receive the medal since it was first awarded in 1869.
Firefighter Thomas Fee received the Hugh Bonner and Honor Legion medals, and Firefighter Edward Morrison, the Brooklyn Citizens Medal/Firefighter Louis Valentino Award for their actions in rescuing 13 people who had been forced by the storm surge to the roof of a building on Beach 114th Street, only to have the roof itself catch fire under a rain of wind-blown embers.
Working from a water rescue boat, Fee helped pull in two men who jumped from the roof, including one who was on fire. He then climbed up the side of the building and helped lower two people down as the flames closed in. He then used a door as a bridge to an adjacent building, which also was on fire.
Morrison led a team that forced its way into the second building with no protective gear, breathing masks or firefighting equipment.
Retreating into an apartment with their escape path cut off by fire, Fee and Morrison then took another door and used it as a bridge to a room in the first structure before leading the group to safety.
Firefighters Kievon Harper and Paul Patras, normally assigned to ladder companies, found themselves detailed that night to Marine Company 3. Their FDNY citations state that the two battled rising floodwaters and rain being blown sideways by hurricane-force winds as they rescued 12 people from a pair of homes on Beach 44th Street.
Seeing a faint light in a building where people were reported trapped, Patras and Harper swam more than 50 yards to reach the house, where they found a man and two women. They made a raft out of a section of wooden fence and took the women to safety while the boat’s pilot, Firefighter Keith Calabrese, kept a searchlight trained on the man until they could return for him.
The boat, Skiff 3, came back to Beach 44th after the firefighters learned that a pregnant woman in another home was having stomach pains.
Harper and Patras found two women and seven children, including three infants, whom they loaded into the boat and brought to safety on Beach 32nd Street.
Patras received the Bella Stiefel Medal; Harper, the Vincent J. Kane Medal.
Firefighter Joseph Adinolfi III received the Thomas F. Dougherty Medal for risking his life while off duty to rescue nine people and literally turning his Breezy Point home into a port in the storm until it was safe to evacuate them.
Having evacuated his family earlier, Adinolfi decided he would not risk staying there with reports of spreading fires.
As he was leaving with a life vest in his hands, Adinolfi “heard frantic cries for help” from a parking lot behind his house.
Upon investigating Adinolfi found three women hanging on to a submerged SUV. Donning the life vest and entering water above his head, he swam about 75 yards to reach the SUV, rescuing each of the women, and gave them refuge in his house, only to go back when they told him a man and a woman were still trapped in the lot with vehicles floating around them.
The department credits Adinolfi with swimming more than 100 yards to reach the two victims, “who were clinging to a chain link fence so they would not be swept away by the rising water.”
Adinolfi would brave the storm once more, this time leading four adults from their homes to his.
His medal citation marks Adinolfi’s final rescue tally at nine adults, four dogs, one cat and a 50-year-old parrot.
Firefighter Brandon Froelich, detailed for that shift to Hook & Ladder Co. 121, was on his way to a reported electrical fire when his crew’s truck was stopped by rising floodwaters at Beach Channel Drive and Beach 34th Street.
They were then approached by an EMS officer who said two city EMTs and a female patient were trapped a block away in an ambulance that was caught in rising, rushing water. Froelich was part of a group that set out first on foot and then by swimming in what became 7 feet of water before receding to only neck deep as they came within 200 feet of the ambulance, which was steadily filling with water.
As the EMTs attempted to get the patient to safety, Froelich’s group saw the tide sweep the woman away.
Searching in the darkness through windswept rain, Froelich spotted the woman clinging to a utility pole about 50 yards away.
“Firefighter Froelich, disregarding his safety and without any kind of flotation device, made his way through almost seven feet of water,” according to the FDNY.
Fighting a strong current, Froelich reached the woman and, after telling her to wrap her arms around his neck and legs around his waist, carried her three blocks to a safe area and a waiting ambulance.
He was awarded the William F. Conran Medal in June for displaying “courage and initiative under severe conditions.”
Six members of Ladder Co. 137 and eight from Engine Co. 268 also were honored.
Ladder Truck 137 broke down when caught in the storm surge at Beach 108th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. Hooking tow straps to Engine 268, both companies were able to get the damaged apparatus back to the Beach 116th Street station shortly before they saw smoke coming from a burning building nearby.
Grabbing Engine 268’s extension ladder, men from both companies trudged through 5 feet of rushing water, eventually rescuing 11 people from three burning structures.
With all known civilians safe, 268 was about to head off to an unchecked structure fire when their radio bore grim news — no other companies were available for dispatch to their area, and 137 and 268 would be “on their own” until further notice.
Ladder 137, now a de facto engine company with the loss of its truck and many of its tools, spent the rest of the storm and well into the next morning using hoses and hydrants to douse buildings in danger of catching fire from blowing embers
Personnel with Engine Co. 268 worked their way through the flood along Rockaway Beach Boulevard with portable ladders and forced entry equipment, searching buildings and rescuing more than 20 people who had not evacuated prior to the storm.
They then headed to a raging fire along Beach 110th street and set out to confine the inferno to its existing footprint, with the eight exhausted men getting soaked, experiencing hypothermia and dodging floating debris ranging from cars and utility poles to sections of the boardwalk.
The department, in awarding them the Lt. James Curran New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation Medal, credited Lt. Kevin O’Connor and firefighters Michael Arbuiso, Glenn Bubenheimer, Matthew Kempton, Alex Khodai, Stephen Masom, Robert Schiff and William Smith of Engine Co. 268 with successfully stopping the equivalent of a multialarm fire aside from their rescue work.
Lt. Abimael Acosta and firefighters Paul Calvo, Evan Davis, Kevin Dolan, Richard Ferrin and Casey Skudin of Ladder Co. 137 received the FDNY’s Thomas R. Elsasser Memorial Medal.