Veterans Honored at FDIC Opening

April 9, 2008
Former Naval Water Tender James O'Donnell and other veterans in attendance were honored the conference's opening.

INDIANAPOLIS -- While the convention center here was no doubt filled with heroes from communities across the country, one man stood out above the others.

James O'Donnell received the longest standing ovation during the opening ceremonies of the FDIC conference on Wednesday morning.

The 87-year-old, who turned and saluted the audience, wasn't recognized for rushing into a burning building to rescue someone. His heroics occurred in 1945 when he was a water tender aboard the USS Indianapolis.

He was asleep on deck when the ship was hit be enemy fire. Within minutes, O'Donnell found himself in the water with many of his mates.

Although his eyes were pained by the burning oil, O'Donnell and several of his friends stayed together in a group. Straying meant an increased possibility of being attacked by sharks.

After five days of struggling in the water, O'Donnell and the others were rescued. One man was treated for a shark bite to the ankle, another had been bitten in the buttocks.

"Just like in the fire service, if you give up you'll never make it. You can't give up. That's what kept us going."

While the experience had an impact on his life, the 25-year-old wasn't about to call it quits. When he left the Navy, he joined the Indianapolis Fire Department.

He was assigned to a truck, and spent the next 35 years serving his community. He retired as a lieutenant.

O'Donnell said he saw a number of changes in the fire service during his tenure. "There are too many to think about."

The veteran said he was pleased to have been recognized by the firefighters. "I was surprised, yes, but it was nice. I was honoredâ¦"

Throughout the day, firefighters stopped by to salute the hero, and hear more about his ordeal so many years ago.

Bobby Halton, editor of Fire Engineering, recounted the story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and the heroics of those aboard. His passionate rendition and the bravery of the survivors brought tears.

Standing at parade rest behind him were four members of the military in uniform. Each man's turnout gear was placed in front of him. The crowd also gave them and other veterans a standing ovation.

A firefighter from Massachusetts who rescued two children from a burning home was the recipient of the 2008 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award.

On Oct. 25, the Fall River Fire Department was dispatched for a house fire. They arrived to find heavy smoke and fire.

Without a line, Firefighter Michael Cabral raced into the building and made his way to the second floor. He found a crib, but it was empty.

He searched in the darkness and found a bed and a tiny foot. He scooped up the child, and fell as he went down the stairs. But, he never lost his treasure.

After handing off the boy, he went back upstairs. He found a girl, and was headed out with her when his maks became dislodged. He met his crew with the line as he was struggling with the child and his mask that had become dislodged.

He handed her off to another firefighter, and left the house.

The boy was revived on the scene, the girl at a hospital. Both have fully recovered.

Cabral said he was humbled by the recognition. "My captain nominated me. I was surprised to have won it. Chief Downey was such an incredible man."

On Thanksgiving, Cabral and some of his crew visited with the children. "They are awesome," he said.

Seattle Fire Capt. Mike Gagliano reminded the audience to remember how they felt when they received word that they had been hired by their fire departments.

"It was the most incredible day of my life," the keynote speaker said, adding that he remembers clearly how is emotions soared when he entered the fire academy.

"Who is a firefighter? They are men and women who save lives because they've seen so much death."

He urged the crowd to keep fighting for what they believe in -- the fire service. "Don't let it be taken from you. Don't allow the politicians to demean what you do....Don't wait for orders for headquarters. Ride to the sound of the gunfire."

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