Grand Prize Winner: Chicago Firefighter Joseph Martinelli

On the night of March 1, 2009, Chicago Firefighter Joseph Martinelli risked his life to save a resident from a burning building.

That resident -- 61-year-old Mirostaw Dziemidowicz -- unfortunately died later that night, but Martinelli's efforts have not gone unnoticed as he has been selected by Firehouse Magazine as the grand prize recipient for the 2009 Heroism & Community Service Awards.

"No one that I know who is a fireman does it for the awards. You do it because it's a great job; to be in a position to be able to help people," he told during a podcast interview.

Listen to Part 1 of the Podcast

Listen to Part 2 of the Podcast

He responded with Squad 2 to the fire at 3310 North Lawndale Avenue that reported at a two-and-a-half-story brick apartment building at approximately 8 p.m. The scene was right around the corner from the firehouse and the crew parked down the street so it left enough room for the first due truck.

When they approached the structure, there were already residents outside and the first due engine was already on the scene. Several of the residents said they thought a man who lived on the first floor was still trapped inside.

"You could see the fire pretty much had taken the rear of the first floor," he said. "We went up to force the door open and I had the bar set in the door and got a crack open. A heavy push of black smoke came out right away so we knew we had a good fire going."

Martinelli and his partner, Capt. Pat Maloney went inside the structure and begin their search for the victim. The firefighter, with the pressurized water extinguisher in hand, stayed on the left hand wall and moved to the rear of the building as the officer started his search on the right.

"There was black smoke to the floor," he said. "It's the typical problem that firemen across the country always see nowadays with these vinyl replacement windows and everything else that bottles things up and holds the heat in really good. They don't fail at the lower temperatures the standard double hung window used to fail at.

"It was hot but it wasn't unbearable. It didn't seem like a flashover was imminent or anything."

When he progressed to the middle of the apartment, he was met by the flames, but was still waiting for the water supply.

"We didn't hear any (sign of life) and I heard my boss come up next to me and say 'I'm going to go see about that line.' I told him 'I got the fire.' He told me that if it got too bad, to back out."

When the water can was out of water and the flames were approaching, he planned to make his way out of the structure, but before leaving decided to check a nearby bedroom where he found the victim lying on a bed.

"I just thought 'I'm going to make a grab.' I was shocked that I found the victim."

He transmitted a message over his radio saying that he found the victim and was coming out with him.

"I got the victim off the bed and things were getting hotter and hotter. By the time I got the victim down and sat him up and got my webbing around him and started dragging him out. As I got him closer to the bedroom door, I decided it was a little too hot and looked up and saw the room had started to flash over."

He decided that it would be too risky to exit out the front door and that he'd have a better chance if he instead went out the window. He dragged the victim back inside the bedroom and shut the door. At that point he made a Mayday transmission.

"From my initial size-up outside the structure, I knew this bedroom had a window which also had an air conditioner in it. I figured that wouldn't be a big problem because normally I would just pull it out and use it as a step, but I later found out it was lag bolted in," he said. "Murphy's Law kicked in and I took a pretty good trimming cleaning out the window. I had it cleaned out but couldn't get the air conditioner cleared."

The RIT team spotted him and came down the gangway to lend him a hand, but Martinelli -- who is 5-foot-5, couldn't get the man over the AC unit.

"I was gassed. At this time it was hot. I burnt my ears through my hood. It was banking down and rolling in the ceiling above us.

"What saved me was that everyone on the scene was working together. I found out later that they had water trouble with a dead hydrant at a front, but the second engine led out to the rear and they made their way through."

Soon he heard water "bouncing around" further back in the apartment and decided to open the door and try to make an escape. He turned the victim back around and started dragging him out.

They crawled to the doorway where Capt. Pat Maloney assisted them. He took over the lead position while Martinelli took the victim's feet and they brought him out the rest of the way and the man was moved to an ambulance.

"I don't think what I did was going above and beyond the call, I was just doing my job," he said. "There are guys out there whose acts that never go noticed except by their own guys. It's a humbling experience, I'm at a loss for words."