Firefighters presented with medals for valor

Men lauded for saving woman in house fire

During the presentation of a valor medal to Fire Department Capt. Kelly Dilling at City Council’s Wednesday meeting, Chief Tim Hileman said, “He’ll tell you he was just doing his job.”

Hileman was right: Afterward, Dilling — and fellow awardee Alex Eberhart — sounded like football players from the 1950s, crediting their training, disclaiming individual credit and saying what they did was nothing special.

But according to Hileman, Dilling, firefighter Eberhart and Capt. Jim Campbell, who also received a valor award — all for actions at a house fire on the 900 block of Lexington Avenue on May 2 — went above and beyond the call of duty in a way that was special indeed.

Dilling was in a hallway, sending water toward the front of the large house, when he heard gasping behind him, according to Hileman and Dilling.

Immediately, he put down the hose — his protection — got onto his hands and knees, put his right hand to the wall because he couldn’t see, and began crawling back toward the sound.

Trainees are taught at the academy that when they can’t see their feet, they need to leave their feet, get on onto their hands and knees and feel their way along a wall with one hand, so they can remain oriented, so their weight is distributed more broadly to reduce the chance of breaking through a weakened floor and because, in feeling with their other hand, they will be warned when they come to steps or a vacancy caused by a floor that has already collapsed, Dilling said.

Feeling his way, Dilling came to the doorway of a small bedroom, did a quick circuit, still on his hands and knees, re-entered the hallway and continued until he found Lisa Cuff.

Cuff was close to unconscious, close to respiratory arrest, Dilling said.

He “drag-rescued her” to the front door, where she was taken by AMED to UPMC Altoona, then flown to Pittsburgh, according to Hileman and Dilling.

She’s OK now and was present at the meeting Wednesday.

After her rescue, on word that there might be two other people still inside, Campbell and Eberhart went in and up to the second floor and, without protection of a hose, began a “left hand wall search,” on their hands and knees.

They ceased only when a supervisor radioed from outside with definite word that no one else was in the house, Hileman said.

Cuff was present at Wednesday’s meeting, where she presented Dilling with a picture on canvas showing a pair of hands, flowers and the inscription “HERO.”

He’ll hang it in his house, Dilling said.

The rescue of Cuff was his first in which the victim survived, said Dilling, a 13-year veteran of the department who nevertheless said the basic experience is familiar to him.

Not so to Eberhart, who has served in the department for only a year, and who has experienced nothing at work or elsewhere to compare.

Of his actions that day, Dilling said, “It’s just what I was trained to do.”

“I just tried to do what needed to be done,” said Eberhart, who explained that practice in “dark, hot, smoky” situations, relying on touch and hearing, had prepared him well, except for obstacles he encountered like furniture.

Asked about fear, Eberhart said there wasn’t time to feel it, “once the adrenaline kick(ed) in.”

What happened that day is why they signed up — “to help people in need,” Eberhart said.

“It’s what we took an oath to do,” Dilling stated.

Campbell left before he could be interviewed by the Mirror after the meeting.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.