By Kris Gilbertson
On April 20, a cool but bright spring day, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce hosted the 2016 Public Safety Valor Awards, as it has for 30 years. The Valor Awards recognize outstanding performance among first responders in the Alexandria Police Department, Sheriff’s Office, and Fire Department—the people who put their own lives in danger to keep us safe.
This year’s event was staged at the Belle Haven Country Club and attended by more than 220 business leaders, elected officials, representatives of the agencies honored, media, and general public. Mayor Allison Silberberg, City Manager Mark Jinx, Councilwoman Del Pepper, and former mayor Bill Euille attended. Unable to attend, Senator John Warner sent a personal letter to each award winner.
In welcoming remarks, Joseph Haggerty, the Chamber’s new president and CEO, said, “These outstanding people are one reason we are such an attractive community to live in. This event is always one of our most popular as it celebrates true community spirit.”
Following a stirring rendition of our national anthem from Alexandria Sheriff’s Deputy Deon Best and invocation by Police Captain Don Hayes, the gathering partook of lunch and then got down to the business at hand.
Eun Yang, anchor of News4 Today, continued the tradition of a local media celebrity introducing each honoree with a description of their valorous acts. Yang expressed elaborate appreciation not only for the honorees, but for all first responders present or otherwise engaged. “Some of those not here today are covering for others,” she said, “so that they can go to a funeral in Prince George’s County.” (Firefighter Paramedic John Ulmschneider was shot and killed while responding to a welfare check call at a home in Temple Hills, Maryland. He was buried April 20.)
Alexandria Fire Department
Captain Jason Wehmeyer; Firefighter Kristina Holt
In July, Captain Wehmeyer and Firefighter Holt volunteered at a cycling race in Prince William County, part of the World Police and Fire Games hosted by Fairfax Fire and Rescue. During the race, a blown front tire caused a crash involving multiple cyclists. Wehmeyer and Holt assisted the medical crew by providing lifesaving care for critically injured riders while ambulances were en route.
Firefighter Holt accompanied gravely injured Brazilian team member Carlos Silva to the hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. For several days, Holt served as liaison, providing support for his family and teammates. The other injured riders are recovering, thanks in large part to Captain Wehmeyer and Firefighter Holt. For their work, they were honored with Life Saving Awards.
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Captain Wells Wilson
In May, the Alexandria Department of Emergency Communications received calls for a building fire on Kenmore Avenue. Although off duty, Captain Wilson grabbed his gear and hopped on board Engine 206 as it rolled out of the station.
On scene, Wilson determined that the fire extended from the first floor to the roof. One victim had already jumped from the third floor and needed medical aid. Knowing additional people were trapped on upper floors, he helped use the Engine’s portable deploy ladders to pull people to safety and stayed with them until EMS arrived.
For his efforts, Captain Wells received a Certificate of Valor.
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Alexandria Sheriff’s Office
Deputy Manuel Lee – Deputy Myrna Juarez – Deputy Devon Neckles – Deputy Cinie Bearden
In March, spontaneous teamwork among deputies at the William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center paid off when an inmate attempted suicide by hanging.
An accused bank robber facing a lengthy federal prison term wrapped one end of a sheet around a mezzanine railing and the other end around his neck. In seconds, he lowered himself down to hang. Inmates in the day room below raised the alarm with Deputy Lee. Lee and an inmate grabbed the man and held him up enough to relieve tension on his neck.
Deputy Juarez called for all staff to respond. She then ran to the mezzanine level and worked to untie the sheet, just as Deputy Neckles and Deputy Bearden arrived on scene. Neckles joined Lee in holding the man up while Bearden assisted Juarez with untying the tight knot in the sheet.
Juarez and Bearden successfully freed the sheet from the railing, and Neckles and Lee determined that he was alive. Deputies maintained custody as medics transported the inmate to the hospital. He survived and fully recovered to face the charges against him.
For their outstanding efforts and teamwork, Deputies Manuel Lee, Myrna Juarez, Devon Neckles and Cinie Bearden each received a Life Saving Award.
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Deputy Joseph Runquist
All Alexandria Sheriff’s Office employees are certified in first aid and CPR and train regularly to remain current on proper techniques.
One evening in April, Deputy Runquist was off duty and having dinner at a popular restaurant in Springfield when he observed that a woman at a nearby table was choking. He also observed that the man trying to help was incorrectly attempting the Heimlich maneuver.
Deputy Runquist identified himself as a trained first responder and took over. It required multiple thrusts before he heard the victim gasping in air and saw a piece of meat on the floor. Now she could breathe.
In appreciation, the couple and the restaurant staff wanted to pay for Deputy Runquist’s meal, but he politely declined. However, he did take time to show the woman’s companion the correct way to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
Through Deputy Runquist’s observations, prompt action and thorough training, he saved a woman from choking to death. For his actions, Deputy Runquist received a Life Saving Award.
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Alexandria Police Department
Officer Jonattan Lopez
In July, Officer Jonattan Lopez responded to assist Fire and Medics on a call for an unconscious man. Arriving on scene first, he located the victim lying unconscious on the floor. The man’s face was purple and he was not breathing. Officer Lopez began CPR on the victim and continued for over two minutes until medics arrived.
Because his quick actions allowed the victim to survive, Officer Jonattan Lopez received a Life Saving Award.
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Officer Carl Stowe
One afternoon in July, as Officer Carl Stowe investigated a larceny in the 800 block of South Pickett Street, a frantic employee from a nearby office approached, saying that a coworker had passed out and stopped breathing.
Officer Stowe went to the business and found the victim on the floor while coworkers had begun CPR. The victim was not breathing and Stowe found no pulse. He notified Communications Center of the situation and took over for the victim’s visibly shaken coworkers. Stowe continued CPR until relieved by medics. The victim was transported and admitted to INOVA Alexandria Hospital in critical condition.
Because his quick actions enabled the victim to survive, Officer Carl Stowe received a Life Saving Award.
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Sergeant Patrick Taylor; Officer Alexa Mastrostefano
In August, a report came in of multiple gunshots in the area of First and North Patrick Streets. Sergeant Patrick Taylor was nearby and made his way to an alley along the 1000 block of First Street. There he encountered several people who pointed south. Taylor headed in that direction and encountered a disoriented man walking toward him in the alley. Unsure if this was a suspect or victim, Taylor asked the man to sit on the pavement. He failed to do so. At this point Sergeant Taylor noticed the man was bleeding profusely from his hip and his disorientation was progressing to unconsciousness.
Officer Alexa Mastrostefano arrived as Sergeant Taylor was walking toward the man and also observed bleeding from the victim’s hip. A resident emerged from behind Taylor and gave the man a chair to sit in just as he lost consciousness. Acting quickly, Officer Mastrostefano removed the man’s shoes and pants and discovered several gunshot wounds to his hip and left leg.
The same resident produced medical supplies and Mastrostefano applied a tourniquet but it was missing a piece and couldn’t be secured. She held the tourniquet secure with one hand while she applied pressure to one wound with her knee and used her other hand to apply pressure to an additional wound. When medics arrived, the man was transported to Fairfax Hospital. Officer Mastrostefano rode with the victim, still holding onto the tourniquet while medics treated him.
As a direct result of Officer Mastrostefano and Sergeant Taylor’s actions, the victim survived and will make a full recovery. Officer Mastrostefano was presented a Life Saving Award and Sergeant Taylor received a Certificate of Valor.
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Sergeant Daniel Plank; Officer Stephen Riley
During early morning hours on January 1, the Alexandria Emergency Communications Center received a call for a domestic incident in progress. The distraught caller said a known person was in her home and was going to kill her. Then the line went dead.
Officer Stephen Riley asked to respond, as he knew the suspect and his lengthy history of violence. Officer Riley was first to arrive on scene and could hear a man and woman yelling. As he approached the apartment, the suspect suddenly opened the door, saw Riley, slammed the door and locked it. Knowing the severity of the situation, Riley courageously decided not to wait for back-up but kicked the door in.
Sergeant Dan Plank arrived at this point. With firearms drawn, the officers entered the apartment to find the victim in the living room. She said the suspect had retreated to a back bedroom.
Plank and Riley approached the bedroom and called for the suspect to come out, hands up. And he did. The officers handcuffed the suspect and placed him under arrest. For their work in this dangerous situation, Sergeant Daniel Plank received a Certificate of Valor and Officer Stephen Riley was awarded a Bronze Medal.
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Officer Matthew Barnickle; Officer Richard Vergara
One morning in October, officers were dispatched for a motor vehicle collision with fire and a person possibly trapped in the burning car. Officer Matthew Barnickle and Officer Richard Vergara arrived first on scene and observed a cloud of smoke engulfing two vehicles. One car had crashed into a car in front of it and was on fire, with flames shooting out the passenger side. The front end was entirely engulfed with smoke making it hard to see inside.
The front wheels of the burning car were spinning. It had been halted by the vehicle it struck, but was still inching forward. The driver side door was locked, so Officer Barnickle used his expandable baton to break the driver side rear window, reach in, and unlock the door.
A billow of black smoke shot out of the car but the officers could see an unconscious female buckled into her seat. Officer Barnickle and Officer Vergara immediately entered the smoke and flame-filled vehicle to release the driver’s seat belt. Together, the officers got the unconscious female free of her restraints and out to safety. Seconds later, the entire vehicle was engulfed in flames.
It was later determined the unconscious driver was under the influence of alcohol and driving without a license. After crashing into the vehicle in front of her, the driver’s foot stayed on the gas pedal, which kept the front wheels spinning. This caused the tires to shred and burn off, and the metal rims to dig into the asphalt. The friction caused the car to catch fire.
For their valor and heroism in the face of great personal risk, Officers Barnickle and Vergara are awarded Silver Medals.