Norwalk firefighters who risked their lives to save a man and woman trapped in a submerged car in Norwalk Harbor in late October were honored Nov. 7 with unit citations at Station 2 on Fairfield Avenue.
"Most of these guys will tell you that they're just doing their job and there's no reason for an award," said Deputy Fire Chief Gino Gatto. "I disagree."
Gatto said firefighters who responded to the call in the late afternoon of Oct. 27 "all did an outstanding job" and that Fire Chief Denis McCarthy and Assistant Fire Chief Laurence Reilly both agreed that unit citations were in order.
Carol Andreoli, chairwoman of the Norwalk Fire Commission, said firefighters who dove into the water without cold-water gear to rescue the husband and wife from Stamford "showed how selfless they are and put themselves in harm's way."
"I feel you are heroes. The citizens of Norwalk feel you are heroes. You make this department and make this city what it is," Andreoli added.
The car had plunged into the boat basin on the east side of Veterans Park on Seaview Avenue about 4:51 p.m, and two Good Samaritans -- Tom Elles, an off-duty Stamford firefighter, and Norwalk resident Matt Walker -- attempted to rescue the couple before firefighters arrived.
McCarthy said after the ceremony that the car was in about 12 feet of water when the first firefighters arrived -- Fire Lt. Efstathios Papadopoulos and firefighters Hector Ramirez, Elefterios Petrides, James Lyons and Dave Dustin. Firefighters who followed -- Capt. Adam Markowitz and firefighters Martin O'Marra, Pat St. Onge and Anthony O'Marra -- also entered the water, and Gatto, who arrived with O'Marra, served as the incident commander.
McCarthy said the rescue involved "multiple dives."
"The conditions under water, because all the silt was stirred up, there was no visibility whatsoever," he said.
Firefighters rescued the couple by breaking the back window of the car and pulling them out of it and onto a dock, and firefighters administered CPR before the couple was rushed to Norwalk Hospital. Firefighters who performed CPR and assisted in packaging the couple for transport to the hospital included Fire Lt. Bruce Sanford, Fire Lt. Thomas Reidy and firefighters George Baez, Michael Cripps, David Burrows, Michael Sniffin, Mark Melnychuk and Alex Wilson, according to McCarthy.
"By their professional, coordinated efforts, and willingness to expose themselves to danger by entering the water, the responding personnel were able to remove two live victims from the submerged car and prevent a tragic situation from becoming worse," McCarthy said. "We owe these men a debt of gratitude and admiration."
"Although heroism is performed every day, when a team comes together like they did to save the lives of two civilians, it's impressive," McCarthy said. "We train every day. Every drill is about what these men did in Norwalk Harbor. It's about teamwork."
McCarthy credited Gatto's "extraordinary skill" in managing an incident where firefighters "are risking their lives in order to make a rescue."
He said firefighters have responded to submerged cars before, but added the Oct. 27 rescue was unique because the car was "completely submerged and without any other equipment available, they made surface dives to rescue the victims."
Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia said the respect due to the firefighters was evidenced in remarks he heard from Norwalk police who couldn't believe how quickly the firefighters dove into the water. "I will tell you how much respect I have when a police officer tells me they couldn't believe how they went in with no cold-water gear, in tee-shirts and pants, with no thought to their own safety," Moccia said. "There is no way I can express my thanks adequately enough, other than to say ... I am very lucky to say I represent a department like this."
The woman who was submerged in the car later died, while the man remains hospitalized. Their ages were 39 and 40, according to McCarthy.
The firefighters' heroic efforts took place only days before Hurricane Sandy struck, and McCarthy, Moccia and Andreoli referenced the hard work and heroism of firefighters in responding to hundreds of calls due to the storm.
"Those hundreds of calls, probably dozens would deserve recognition, but because there were hundreds and hundreds of calls, we don't have the ability to recognize individually the response to Hurricane Sandy," McCarthy said.