Indianapolis, April 11, 2008 -Three Detroit firefighters - Lieutenant Robert Distelrath, and Firefighters Mike Risher and Brendan Milewski - received the Fireslayer of the Year (FOTY) Award, presented annually by global safety equipment manufacturer MSA (NYSE: MSA), Pittsburgh, Pa. Distelrath, Risher and Milewski accepted the award during a special ceremony today at the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), in Indianapolis, Ind. MSA established the award in 2000 to recognize firefighters who display selfless dedication in the line of duty.
"This award means a lot to any fire department but especially the Detroit Fire Department," said Detroit Fire Department Senior Chief Kenneth Routin, who submitted the nomination. "I'm very proud of the job these guys did."
With the nation's highest foreclosure rate fueling arson at six times the national average just doing the job is tough enough. Widespread firehouse closures, faulty equipment and deep personnel cuts make it even tougher.
On the morning after Thanksgiving of last year, Distelrath, Risher and Milewski risked their lives entering a burning house to search for two children, ages one and three, who were trapped inside. Equipped with just axes, sledgehammers and SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus),Milewski and Distelrath entered the three-bedroom dwelling first. Risher, who drove the truck, dressed quickly and followed them seconds later. "We went into search and rescue mode," he explained, "we had no hose lines with us... we were going for one thing- life safety." Even if they had tried they couldn't have put water on the fire. The pumps on their rig weren't working that day.
When they got upstairs the bathroom and rear bedroom were fully involved. Flames reached from floor to ceiling. If the children were alive they had to be in the one of the two front bedrooms.
They split up to search the front bedrooms. Distelrath closed the door behind himself to keep flames away from the children - if they were there. Thick black smoke cut visibility to zero. The only way to find the kids was to painstakingly search the room by hand.
Firefighters wear thick leather gloves to protect their hands from heat and sharp objects. But the gloves can make it difficult to distinguish between a pillow or stuffed animal and a human being. To increase sensitivity, Distelrath removed his gloves and searched with his bare hands.
The gamble paid off. Distlerath found the children quickly. Holding both of them in his arms the next challenge was getting out alive. He'd walked through fire to reach the children and didn't know if he could get out the same way. He kicked out a window.
Risher was in the hall and heard the breaking glass. By now, Engine 46 had arrived and knocked down the fire. Risher called out, "Is there anybody in here?" "Yeah," Distelrath answered, "I've got two of them." Risher followed Distelrath's voice and took the younger child. Risher wrapped his body around the infant to shield it from heat and led the way down the stairs. The father of a one-year old, he later said, "I felt like I was carrying my own son."
Paramedics rushed the children to Children's Hospital of Michigan, performing CPR along the way. They were admitted to the hospital's Intensive Care Unit. The younger child's condition was upgraded to serious later that afternoon. Tragically, the three-year-old perished.