Spirit of Courage Awards 2019

On May 2nd, 2019 the Burn Institute presented 12 local heroes with the Spirit of Courage Award. This prestigious recognition is given to local members of the community who risk their lives in an effort to save another from a fire related accident. Held at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina, nearly 300 guests gathered for a formal awards banquet to celebrate their bravery. The program was hosted by CBS News 8 anchor and reporter, Alicia Summers, and additional awards were presented by UC San Diego Regional Burn Center to Burn Garment Specialist Carolyn Sandlin and Mary Varrichio, and The San Diego County Fire Chiefs’ Association to Chaplain Mickey Stonier. The Burn Institute also honored Poway Fire Captain Jeffrey Cole with the Pamela R. Kelly Volunteer of the Year Award and IIAB San Diego with their Community Hero Award.

Officers Pedro Gonzalez and Jason Sanchez

On August 11, 2018 at 1:30am, Officer Pedro Gonzalez and Officer Jason Sanchez were headed northbound on I-15 when they saw a disabled motorist on the right shoulder. They began approaching the vehicle to conduct a welfare check and noticed debris along the highway. They turned on their emergency lights to alert motorists behind them, which then illuminated a disabled vehicle just 50 feet ahead of them in the second to the right lane. They quickly veered to avoid the blacked-out car. Seconds later a SUV came from behind and struck the disabled car, causing an explosion with flames shooting nearly 30 feet in the air.  They quickly jumped out of the patrol car, secured the scene and began to stop traffic. They ran towards the car that was fully engulfed, searching for the driver, but saw no one inside. Officer Sanchez grabbed his medical bag and ran towards the SUV, which was now in the center divider. At this point, Officer Gonzalez noticed another vehicle in front of the one that had just exploded. It was beginning to catch fire from behind and he saw there was a woman in the car screaming for help. Another motorist then pulled up and asked what he could do. Officer Gonzalez gave him a fire extinguisher and tasked him with hitting the flames. The officer then tried to open the driver door, but it was locked. He ran to the passenger door, and that too was locked. He took out his baton, broke the driver-side window, and opened the door from the inside. Smoke came billowing out of the car. He pushed the seat back, unbuckled her seatbelt and was able to pull the woman out of the vehicle to safety, where Officer Sanchez rendered medical aid.

Sadoc Sanchez and Chance Campbell

On Monday, October 8, 2018, Sadoc Sanchez and Chance Campbell were starting their landscaping shift with the City of Chula Vista when they heard frantic screaming coming from nearby. Chance looked over and saw flames coming from the second story window of a home. Sadoc and Chance rushed over to find two children running out of the house in a panic. Chance called 911 and handed the phone to one of the children, while they attempted to get a garden hose to the two people trapped upstairs. The man and woman were hanging out the window screaming for help as the flames were creeping closer to them. Chance and Sadoc were unable to get the hose to the trapped residents and decided it was time to attempt entry into the home. They ran in through the front door but were met with thick black smoke and retreated quickly. They took a few deep breaths outside, and then went right back in, this time making it upstairs and nearly to the bedroom, before choking and needing to retreat. They now realized that getting the residents out of the room from inside the home was not an option due to the extreme conditions. Chance and Sadoc then stood outside the bedroom window and calmly began to instruct the residents to jump out of the window. With a little encouragement, both the man and the woman leaped out the window with Chance and Sadoc working as a team to catch them. All residents were able to safely escape.

Officer Fernando Martinez and Randall Gray

On June 10, 2018 at 12:57am, Police Officers Randall Gray and Fernando Martinez responded to a radio call of an apartment that was on fire. While in route, they were informed that flames and heavy smoke were coming from the kitchen area of the apartment. They arrived on scene and were unable to see inside the residence due to the thick black smoke. As they began peering into the apartment, calling out to determine if anyone was left inside, an unidentified resident of a nearby unit notified them that no one was inside. The officers were not convinced that the apartment was empty, and they were deeply concerned for anyone who may be trapped. Officers Gray and Martinez wanted to ensure all residents had escaped so they decided to enter the smoke-filled apartment, continuously calling out. As the officers entered deeper into the home, they observed an adult female and young toddler laying on the couch, unconscious and unaware of the blaring alarm or the smoke completely filling the air. They attempted to rouse the subjects, with yelling and shaking, but both were still unresponsive. Officer Gray picked up the toddler and carried her outside, still not awake or showing other signs of responsiveness. Officer Martinez was able to wake the adult and assist her outside. Both were treated by medics and fully recovered.

Officer Carlos Diaz

On December 4, 2018 Officer Carlos Diaz was heading northbound on 16th Street in Downtown San Diego when he noticed smoke and sparks coming from the rear portion of a parked car. He immediately turned around, called into dispatch, and headed towards the vehicle to assess the situation. Upon arrival, the engine compartment of the vehicle had thick billowing smoke and growing flames. Officer Diaz noticed an intoxicated male was passed out in the front seat of the car and knew he needed to alert the driver to the quickly approaching fire. After making entry into the car through the driver’s side door, he attempted to wake the driver up, but the male was not cooperative. Officer Diaz then reached into the smoky vehicle to unbuckle the driver and began an attempt to pull him out. At this point, the front of the vehicle had become even more engulfed with flames and the driver was using all of his might to stay put in the car. Additional officers then arrived on scene and assisted Officer Diaz in safely hoisting the man out of the vehicle. Moments after extracting him, the entire vehicle rapidly went up into full flames.

Eric Reyes

On October 16, 2018, Eric Reyes, a US Postal Service employee, was delivering mail when he heard a crash. He looked up and saw a VW Bug that was involved in an accident and smoke coming from the vehicle. Eric drove his truck closer to the accident and quickly jumped out to help. A man in the passenger seat of the vehicle was able to get out of the car and attempted to remove the driver but was unsuccessful. At this point, Eric approached the vehicle and told the passenger who escaped to sit in a safe area. Eric then took over and began trying desperately to remove the driver, but she was unresponsive and wedged into the car. He attempted to unbuckle the seatbelt as the cabin started filling with smoke, but the belt was jammed.

Bystanders gathered around Eric, who started asking them for a fire extinguisher and a knife to cut the belt. A man handed him a knife, in which he used to free the trapped driver from the restraint. Now the flames were approaching the inside of the cabin and creeping towards the driver. Eric tried tugging on the woman, but she was not budging. He threw his arms under her shoulders and pulled with all of his might. He was able to get her out of the car, but now needed to move her to safety. He pulled her across the street and instructed the passenger to yell for the medics as soon as they arrived. She was treated by the fire department upon arrival and made a full recovery.

Ted Nguyen

On September 18, 2019, Ted Nguyen and an Army Sergeant were traveling separately to work on Route 163 when they witnessed a multi-car accident. The freight truck, directly in front of Ted’s vehicle, crashed into the back of an SUV pushing the SUV into the grass on the side of the freeway. Ted immediately pulled over to see how he could help and rushed towards the car in the brush, which he now noticed was on fire. At the same time, the Sergeant spotted flames coming from the vehicle and no emergency personnel on scene yet, so he pulled over his motorcycle and ran towards the vehicle to assist. Ted noticed that there was a woman stuck inside the car, visibly unconscious. He attempted to open the driver side door, but it was jammed shut. The passenger now awoke in a panic and was screaming for help. Ted began searching for something to break the window but could not locate anything large enough. Now, the brush around the car was starting to ignite. The Sergeant slammed the passenger window open using his elbow, which was padded by his motorcycle jacket. He then pulled the woman out of the vehicle with Ted’s assistance. Moments later, the entire vehicle was engulfed in flames. Both men then rushed over to another vehicle on the freeway, where another woman was trapped and seriously injured. The two men were able to safely remove the driver from the car and move her to safety.

Mike Koesterer, Reeve Koesterer and Andy Vo

On October 20, 2018, Mike, his son Reeve, and Andy Vo, were on the way back from Baja to San Diego after fishing for the previous 24 hours. It was a pitch-black night and the water temperature was a brisk 65 degrees. Reeve and Andy were down below sleeping and Mike was at the helm of his 42’ fishing vessel. At this point, Mike was approximately thirty nautical miles southwest of Point Loma in international waters. Mike spotted an orange glow in the distance, approximately four miles from their location. Mike radioed the Coast Guard to see if they were doing any training exercises in the area and heard back that they were not. He immediately headed towards the glow. Mike awoke Andy and Reeve to let them know that there was a potential emergency.  As they approached the burning vessel, Mike told Reeve it didn’t look like there were any survivors and to shut the motor off and drift. Mike quieted everyone while he cupped his ears to hopefully get a better listen for potential survivors. Mike heard screams for help and crying. As they slowly moved closer, Mike and Andy pulled the first victim on the boat. The water was so dark, they could not see anyone until they were right on them. After rescuing the first victim, Mike returned to the helm and carefully maneuvered the boat while Reeve suited up in his wet suit and goggles and dove into the cold water to rescue the passengers. The victims were in a panic, screaming and tugging on Reeve. He calmly talked each of them down, assured them he was there to help, and asked them to stay as relaxed as possible. Reeve swam people to the boat one after another as Andy pulled them on board and Mike maneuvered the boat searching for additional victims. They now had 15 victims on the vessel and started first aid measures. The Coast Guard and the Mexican Navy arrived on scene and the Coast Guard dropped a rescue swimmer into the water to board Mike’s boat. Mike was directed to start driving the boat while they prepared to airlift the two most critical victims off his vessel. Once the helicopter mission was over and the victims transported to UC San Diego Regional Burn Center, Mike, Reeve and Andy assisted the other victims to the Mexican Navy Boat.

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