LIBERTY - When Liberty firefighter Tommy Gibbs heard the multiple alarms about 2 a.m. Sept. 3, he knew it wasn't routine.
"We first heard this was an apartment fire, so we knew it was something pretty big," Gibbs said. "Then when they start calling for multiple alarms, you know it is serious."
The intuition felt by Gibbs and his fellow firefighters on Engine 34 was confirmed when the vehicle rolled to a stop at 16 Holly Drive. The upper floors of an apartment complex were engulfed in flames and victims hung from the balconies. Screams and smoke filled the air, as people attempted to escape the enormous blaze.
Tribune Chronicle / Ashley Newman
Five Liberty firefighters were presented the Life Saving Award on Tuesday night during the Liberty Board of Trustees meeting. Granting the award were, from left, Stan Nudell, trustees chairman, and fire Chief Mike Durkin, and receiving the awards were firefighters Capt. William Opsitnik, Justin Graham and Tommy Gibbs. Also receiving awards but not present were firefighters Rick Parry and Al Rivalsky.
"That is something that we may never see again," sixth-year firefighter Justin Graham said. "Pulling up and seeing those people hanging like that was crazy."
The five members of Rescue 35 had to act quickly. Engine 34 helped establish water supply and began attacking the fire. Crews rescued the two occupants off of a balcony, before rescuing another victim on the third floor.
In just minutes, the team of Gibbs, Graham, Capt. William Opsitnik, Rick Parry and Al Rivalsky gained control of the blaze while searching for more occupants. Liberty Fire Chief Mike Durkin arrived to the scene shortly after the initial crew.
"The first couple minutes are the most critical in a situation like this," Durkin said. "It is one of those things where I saw these guys do everything like they had been training for this moment their entire lives. They did everything right."
When the ordeal was over, seven people had been rescued and the fire extinguished. In recognition of the work by those on Engine 34, the five firefighters were each given a Life Saving Award during Tuesday's Liberty Board of Trustees meeting.
"I think as a trustee, when a fire department responds to a fire and can save lives and actively pursue putting out a fire while saving numerous lives, it really makes your heart swell," Jodi K. Stoyak said. "I'm very proud of the people that we hired to keep the community safe."
The award is reserved for extreme circumstances and granted only in rare instances. According to Durkin, this was undoubtedly worthy of such lofty recognition.
"The fact is, usually when you get a rescue, you don't have more people to rescue than you have firefighters there. We had seven people rescued by five guys," Durkin explained. "They went above and beyond and that's why we gave them this award."
Graham was overwhelmed by the moment.
"It means the world to me," he said. "It is part of our job to do this obviously, but when you pull people out of a fire like that, it is the best feeling in the world. To have those people thank you and everything just means the world to me. With Chief Durkin giving us this award, it is something that I'll treasure forever."
Meanwhile, Opsitnik, who is an 18-year veteran of the department, knows that while the events on Sept. 3 were unusual, he was doing what he was supposed to do.
"This is what every other firefighter is trained to do," he said. "We just did our jobs. We got the people out and put the fire out safely."
"It's a great honor," he said. "This is just what we do, what we are required to do and what is expected of us, but it is nice to be acknowledged for it. We don't really need the acknowledgment, but it is appreciated."