Lowell Firefighters Honored by State for October 2010 Apartment Fire Rescues

WORCESTER – Seven people had already been rescued from a four-alarm fire at 353 Bridge St. in the early-morning hours of Oct. 10, 2010, when firefighters learned there was still a man inside.

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He was on the fourth floor, where fire and heat were so intense one man had already jumped from a window.

The urgency of those in need of help prompted firefighter Donald Milinazzo to extend Ladder 3 through live power lines before he could put down the truck’s supports. The urgent use of the ladder left the truck damaged.

But it was far more than just truck damage that was risked by the men who climbed that ladder and hurried into the flames.

Milinazzo, Capt. Brett Dowling, Lt. Jason Strunk and firefighters John Diaz and Roberto Maldonado each stood in the Hanover Theatre in Worcester yesterday as Gov. Deval Patrick hung Medals of Valor around their necks.

They were among dozens of firefighters from 32 communities, including Chelmsford, to be recognized at the Department of Fire Service’s Firefighter of the Year Awards.

“This is what you train for,” Patrick said. “This is what you sacrifice for. This is what your families hope and pray you will never have to face, but are braced for in the event that you do. It humbles me beyond measure to be in your presence every day.”

Dowling, Strunk, Diaz and Maldonado went to the fourth floor as the fire raged out of control. Dowling found a man, 23-year-old Andrew Brooks, unconscious and without a pulse.

“We thought we had a chance to save him,” Dowling said.

But Brooks was heavy, and hard to move. The men remained inside, pulling Brooks to a window even as a horn sounded multiple times to order the men from the building. The roof was about to collapse.

With a final effort, the four got Brooks out a window and onto a narrow balcony about 40 feet off the ground. A high metal railing kept them from getting Brooks onto a ladder.

Flames began shooting more than 15 feet high out of windows just feet behind the men, and fellow firefighters were forced to hit both the men and the flames with a high-pressure hose line to keep the fire at bay long enough for them to crawl over the railing one by one.

Maldonado was the last man to escape the balcony, but only after being hit in the face by the high-pressure stream of water. He said the blast knocked his helmet off and left his face numb for hours.

“It was like Novocain,” he said. “I left my helmet up there.”

Strunk and Maldonado were both taken to the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation. Strunk was also treated for a back injury.

Brooks could not be saved. Later that day, firefighters found the body of a second man, Louis Souleotis, 47, in a rear fourth-floor bedroom where the fire began.

Two men were dead, another critically injured, but seven lives had been saved.

“One would have thought they would have bailed out of that room a lot sooner, but they hung in there as long as they needed to,” said Fire Chief Edward Pitta.

“I was just doing my job,” Diaz said.

Two pieces of fire apparatus that would have been first to the scene that night were out of service due to rotating station closures used to keep overtime costs in check.

Strunk said he hopes the recognition will remind people of that.

He still wonders if Brooks could have been saved had those trucks been in service.

“It’s very bittersweet to get an award like this knowing that a young man lost his life,” Strunk said. “We met his family members and we’ve seen the pain they went through. We’re honored by the awards, but we understand that there’s still a family behind it that suffered a big loss.”

Dowling said credit is also deserved by every firefighter at the scene that night.

“We couldn’t have done anything we did without the support of everyone who was working that night,” he said.

Also honored yesterday were Chelmsford firefighters Tim Shanahan and Mike Chiasson, who were given state Fire Marshal’s Awards from Fire Marshal Stephen Coan for collecting two tractor-trailer loads of aid for tornado victims in western Massachusetts.

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