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Joe Ruffennach, Joseph Palombi and Luke Vogler received Medals of Valor.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Midway Fire and Rescue: Three who saved woman from fire get valor medals

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Midway Fire and Rescue Capt. Joe Ruffennach knew a life was in danger last August when he heard the call to St. Elizabeth Place, an apartment community for senior citizens at Baskervill in Pawleys Island.

Bystanders said flames and smoke were too intense for them to enter the burning apartment, and the woman was no longer calling for help.

“Being that I have been here 19 years, I knew a lot of the elderly people that live at Baskervill are handicapped or have challenges,” Ruffennach said. “It heightened our awareness.”

Ruffennach and firefighters Joseph Palombi and Luke Vogler entered the burning apartment, lifted the unconscious woman from her kitchen floor and carried her to safety.

For their actions, the three were presented the Medal of Valor at the Midway Fire and Rescue annual awards ceremony. “They put themselves in an incredibly dangerous situation in an attempt to save a life,” said Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman. “It took all the efforts of these three individuals making every decision the right decision without hesitation.”

The three firefighters decided to delay putting water on the fire in order to find the woman more quickly. “Most times,” Eggiman said, “we would go in with a hose line but knew time was of the essence. They left the hose at the front door and went in unprotected against a potential wall of fire.”

Palombi noticed soot around the woman’s nose and mouth, an indication of smoke inhalation, when he took off his breathing apparatus to allow her to breathe pure oxygen until more paramedics arrived. “No question,” Eggiman said, “she didn’t have a tremendous amount of time left. In fire protection, you have to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. Any hesitation could have cost a life. It’s what they trained for.”

Once the woman was safe, the firefighters turned on the water and extinguished the fire before other apartments were damaged.

Eggiman said the rescue at St. Elizabeth Place was one of several heroic actions by Midway personnel during the year. Firefighters Daniel Weihert, Adam Maag, James Costanza and Vogler were presented awards for meritorious action for their rescue of a man trapped in his pickup truck during October’s flooding in the Sampit community.

Midway had boat crews on call in case of emergencies in western Georgetown County in addition to covering areas cut off by flooding on the Waccamaw Neck.

During the flooding, Pawleys Island Outdoors loaned Midway three jon boats to use as needed for emergencies. One of those boats was used to save the man in Sampit. Glenn Cox and Pawleys Island Outdoors were presented Midway’s Community Service Award. Eggiman said Pawleys Island and other areas were cut off from rescue service twice a day during high tides in the flooding and the king tides that followed, and the jon boats were the only means available to evacuate people in case of a medical emergency.

Other awards included:

Officer of the year: Brent McClellan, batallion chief.

“He sculpts people into better individuals,” Eggiman said. “Being an officer is more than strategy and tactics. Much more of our time is spent managing, motivating, disciplining and teaching. He recognizes that for true success to happen you not only have to hold the organization to the highest standard but you have to hold people to the highest standard. Brent is not afraid to tell someone what they need to hear. Yet, if they need advice, that guidance, Brent is the first one that many of them will call.”

Career Firefighter-EMT of the Year: Luke Vogler.

Involved in two life-saving rescues last year, he has influenced his co-workers in a positive way, Eggiman said. “He came to us from the Coast Guard, very knowledgeable on the job and with an outstanding work ethic. He comes to us fully formed. All his skill levels are very sharp, and he brings a professional attitude about the importance of our mission. He’ll have a great future with us,” the chief said.

Tom Boyd Memorial Firefighter-Paramedic of the Year: William Dugan.

He brings a calming nature to any stressful situation, Eggiman said. “It’s tremendously important to have a level head. Anxiety and stress in the voice, that’s contagious. That calming nature equates to confidence in their skill level,” Eggiman said. The award is named for the late Tom Boyd, Midway’s first firefighter-paramedic.

Special Services: Steve Kelsey and Gene Turner.

Midway needs more than firefighters, Eggiman said. Kelsey is the only volunteer to complete the training to drive the department’s new rescue truck. He takes vehicles for maintenance and transports personnel. He proved immensely valuable, Eggiman said, during the flooding at Browns Ferry when Midway was on call. Turner works in the front office two or three days a week, freeing the department’s administrative assistant to do other work. He put in over 200 hours last year, the chief said.

Volunteer EMS Member of the Year: Jennifer Brown.

A trained paramedic, Brown rode with Midway crews to get her certification. “She’s developed a passion for what we do,” Eggiman said. She is completing firefighter training.

Excellence in Training Award: Justin Linker, Ronald Montgomery and Caleb Duda.

They each completed more than 150 hours of professional fire and rescue training on their own time.

Fire and Life Safety Education Award: Michael Morris, fire inspector.

“Whether it’s teaching about fire and injury prevention, putting in a car seat or getting down and rolling on the floor with kids, Michael approaches everything with his level of enthusiasm,” Eggiman said. “He is an incredibly special individual. We are blessed to have him.”

Special Projects Award: Mike Hessler.

He repaired the flagpole and added landscaping at Station 82 on Beaumont Drive.

Most Improved Fitness Award: Capt. Joe Ruffennach.

He lost 80 pounds and quit smoking last year. “He had an epiphany,” Eggiman said. “Now he’s setting the example for people on shift.”

Excellence in Fitness: Joseph Anderson.

He’s been the high scorer in fitness tests at Midway for three years in a row. “He’s a hulk, to put it lightly,” Eggiman said.

Meritorious Service Award: The Rev. Wil Keith, chaplain.

“He has gained a tremendous amount of trust with our people,” Eggiman said. “They relate to him and are comfortable talking to him.” Keith participated in smoke training to understand the firefighter experience. “Guys all saw that, and it make him more trustworthy,” the chief said. “Wil says, ‘You’ve got to smell like a sheep to be part of the flock.’”

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