EPHRATA — Firefighters, police officers and other first responders gathered at Ephrata City Hall Wednesday evening to honor three Ephrata police officers and five firefighters for their involvement in the rescue of two people during a house fire on Aug. 21.
"What an incredible life saving behavior these people did at the snap of a finger," Ephrata Mayor Bruce Reim said. "It's just something you do. You don't think about it, you don't discuss it, you don't plan it, you just do it."
During the short ceremony at the beginning of a regular city council meeting, Ephrata Fire Department Chief Jeremy Burns and EFD Lt. Maxwell Yoder both received the city's Medal of Honor for the actions they took rescuing one severely injured man from the fire.
Also receiving the Mayor's Award of Professional Excellence for their roles in responding to the fire were Ephrata Police Department Sgt. Kristopher Todd Huffman, EPD officers Jose Ramirez and Patrick Canady, and EFD Deputy Fire Chief Anthony Graaff, Capt. Colleen Winski, and firefighter Casey Severin.
On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 21, Ephrata police responded to a blaze at 1115 Cottage St. SE to discover two people were in the basement of the burning house. Huffman and Ramirez coaxed one person out of the burning building before fire crews arrived.
However, after Ephrata firefighters arrived, Burns and Yoder determined there was still one person in the basement, and wearing breathing gear, they went in and pulled the person — who was seriously injured in the fire — out to safety despite hot flames and thick smoke.
Burns said tight teamwork between officers on the ground, firefighters and 911 dispatch made planning for the rescue relatively easy even before the fire engine left the station.
"It was really intense but there was lots of information provided by our police officers to dispatch, and we were able to size up mentally in our heads as we got in the back of the fire engine," he said.
Because the police officers communicated the location of people in the house to the dispatcher, Burns said even with "zero visibility" in the burning house, he and Yoder had some idea of where to go.
"We're very thankful to the people we had there that day, and the amount of help," said Burns, who has been Ephrata fire chief since 2004 and began as a volunteer firefighter in 1995.
Burns also said Yoder went back into the burning building two more times to check to see if anyone else was inside because "he was afraid he missed something."
"He's a real go-getter," Burns said of Yoder.
Despite constant training to enter burning buildings to look for people, Burns said during his long career as a firefighter, he doesn't expect to do another rescue like this again.
"Honestly, it probably won't happen again in my career," he said. "I think I've got about 10 years left of doing this and I don't know that I'll have another rescue in a community our size."
Both victims were flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Reim said. While the first victim, the person coaxed out of the fire, was released after a few days, the second person remains in critical condition with severe burns on over 30% of his body.
Burns said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but he said he believes it was "human caused" and investigators are still trying to find out who was responsible.
"The police are working on the criminal side of that, continuing to pursue leads and talk to people who were there that morning," he said.
Reim said the award presentation was one of the highlights of his job as mayor of the town of roughly 8,000 people.
"You wish it could be more," he said of the medals and certificates. "This is one of the better things that we've been able to do."