West Haverstraw volunteer firefighter Andrew Kolesar received the county's annual Deflumere Valor Award during Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef's state of the county speech Tuesday night.
Kolesar, a former West Haverstraw fire chief who also works as a New York City firefighter, rescued fellow volunteer firegfighter Capt. Ken Patterson Jan. 14 in a fire at an illegally-converted house at 333 Westside Ave., Haverstraw.
During his speech, Vanderhoef called for a renewed push by Rockland County against landlords who illegally create multiple apartments in old houses. Patterson said last night his near-fatal incident took place in a small house where bedrooms had been illegally converted into tiny separate units.
Here is the nomination letter writted by West Haverstraw Fire Chief George Zayas citing West Haverstraw volunteer firefighter Andrew Kolesar's actions on Jan. 14, 2011:
West Haverstraw volunteer firefighter Andrew Kolesar took heroic actions on Friday, January 14, 2011, rescuing his brother firefighter, Captain Ken Patterson from a fate already suffered by two FDNY firefighters in the Bronx six years ago.
At approximately 11:10 pm, Rockland County Deputy Fire Coordinator (and member of the West Haverstraw Fire Department) John Kryger, was on his way home from the Rockland County Volunteer Firemen’s Association’s monthly meeting in Nyack, when he noticed heavy smoke rolling across Route 202 near the Haverstraw/West Haverstraw village border. As he turned toward the source of the smoke, a 2 1/2 story wood-frame house, he saw an orange glow coming from the rear of the residence and immediately notified the County Fire Dispatch Center from his mobile fire radio. George Zayas, the Chief of the West Haverstraw Fire Department, arrived on the scene and immediately began to coordinate extinguishment, search and rescue efforts among the responding fire trucks and personnel. It was determined that the fire was actually at 333 Westside Ave. in Haverstraw, and that fire department was also dispatched.
Zayas was advised by a neighbor that there was a person sleeping and possibly trapped on the third floor of the burning building. As the first fire trucks began to arrive at the scene, 2nd Asst. Chief Robert Lagrow was assigned to handle extinguishing efforts. Captain Kenny Patterson of Volunteer Hose Co. 2, West Haverstraw, was among the first to conduct a search of the building for the potentially trapped victim.
Captain Patterson donned his full firefighter turnout gear, including his self-contained breathing apparatus, and a tool to assist him in his search. Ken and volunteer firefighter George Wargo III from S.W. Johnson Steam Fire Engine Co., entered the front of the residence, determined to search as many rooms as they could until assuring that all victims were removed safely.
As they climbed the smoky stairs, they entered the first room they found on the second floor, which turned out to be a bathroom with no occupants. The next room they crawled to had a closed door. Patterson tried to turn the knob, but the door was locked. His training then kicked in, having practiced this countless times in the past in drills, and he began to force the door open by hitting it repeatedly with his tool. After five or six hard hits, the door flew open. At this point, Patterson knew this was no ordinary house, but probably one that was converted into individual rooms.
Patterson and Wargo entered the room conducting a methodical search, each going in a different direction. As Patterson completed about half of his search, he felt his air pack alarm activate, indicating that his air was running low. Through years of training, Patterson knew that this was the time to leave the building and that he had no time to waste. As he turned around toward what he thought was the doorway to exit the room, Patterson realized that conditions had worsened and he could not see more than inches in front of his face as he worked to locate the exit.
What Patterson, Wargo and all the firefighters from two fire departments didn’t know for sure was the building had been illegally converted into single-room occupancies or SROs. It was this type of illegal conversion that killed two New York City firefighters in the Bronx on Black Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005, including one from Pearl River, while leaving four others fighting for their lives. Ironically, one of those surviving FDNY members was Jeff Cool, a Garnerville resident who was also a member of the West Haverstraw volunteer FD.
As he continued to search for the exit, Patterson’s air tank completely depleted. His mask face piece started to collapse inward to his face. Realizing that he was on the verge of real trouble, Patterson ripped the mask off of his face and managed to yell into his fire radio, the words that every firefighter in the profession dreads to hear “MAYDAY, MAYDAY.”
In the world of firefighting, MAYDAY is the universal call for help. It has, but only one meaning: FIREFIGHTER DOWN AND NEEDS HELP. On that night, among all of the radio transmissions, the searches, the updated reports from the firefighters operating on the scene, the extinguishment progress, the fire trucks communicating with the firefighters inside etc, this message was crystal clear above the rest.
As the MAYDAY was transmitted, the professional experience of Chief Zayas instinctively kicked in, and a cool, calm voice rose above all others on the radio, “23-COMMAND IS ON THE AIR WITH RADIO SILENCE, A MAYDAY IS ON THE AIR, ALL UNITS RADIO SILENCE.” This now became a double rescue operation; a civilian rescue would continue by some volunteers and a firefighter rescue would commence by others. (Simultaneously, other firefighters/officers were concentrating on extinguishing the fire and checking for horizontal and vertical extension).
When the Mayday was transmitted, ex-Chief Andrew Kolesar was in the process of conducting a search of the burning building, too. As he found the doorway to a room on the second floor, he could not see into the room due to the thick acrid smoke. Kolesar, having Patterson’s call, realized that time was working against him and the downed firefighter. He quickly lifted the Thermal Imaging Camera that he brought with him as his tool and began to scan the smoke filled room in hopes of picking up on the body heat of the downed firefighter. This time, as many times in the past, Kolesar’s training paid off. As he scanned the room with the camera, the image of Captain Patterson lit up on the screen in the corner of the room and Kolesar crawled over to him. When he first got to him, Kolesar noticed that Patterson’s mask was off. He said to him, “Kenny, it’s me Andy, I’m here, I got you, I will get you out.” About a second later, Patterson’s head turned to the side and he became unconscious.
Kolesar immediately transmitted over his radio to Chief Zayas, “George, it’s Andy, I got Kenny, I’m bringing him out.” There was no time to say that Patterson was unconscious, but Zayas immediately directed EMS units to the building entrance. Kolesar next changed his position to get behind Patterson’s head and grab him by his self contained breathing apparatus straps and pull backwards with all of his strength. Kolesar then pulled his downed captain out of the room, to the stairs, and as he started down, the momentum of force and imbalance had both of them slide down the stairs. Kolesar was met by two firefighters, each of whom quickly grabbed their captain’s limp body and dragged him outside to the driveway. Patterson was placed on oxygen and then turned over to the Haverstraw and Spring Hill Volunteer Emergency Medical Services and Rockland Paramedics, for transport to the hospital.
Captain Patterson, after being treated at Nyack Hospital and Westchester Medical Center for extremely high carbon monoxide levels, was released and able to recover at home. If it were not for the quick thinking and heroic lifesaving actions of firefighter Andrew Kolesar, this outcome could have been much different.
The Rockland County Sheriff’s Fire Investigation Unit has labeled this blaze incendiary in nature and there is a joint, on-going investigation with that unit and the Haverstraw Town PD. Unknown by firefighters at the time of the fire, the illegal building conversion had already been reported to Haverstraw Village officials. There is an ongoing Rockland County Task Force on illegally-converted buildings, through the efforts of County Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren Jr. and Cool, who is now retired from his 2005 injuries.
Kolesar’s actions on Jan. 14, 2011 were in the finest tradition of the fire service. It is with pride and pleasure that I nominate Andrew Kolesar for the DeFlumere Valor Award.