Eastpointe firefighters awarded Medal of Valor

By: Brendan Losinski | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 8, 2019

 Firefighter Mike Szczesniak, left, Lt. Mike Hewelt, center, and senior firefighter Joseph Zangara, right, were awarded the Medal of Valor by the Macomb County Fire Chiefs Association for their role in responding to a house fire in September 2018.

Firefighter Mike Szczesniak, left, Lt. Mike Hewelt, center, and senior firefighter Joseph Zangara, right, were awarded the Medal of Valor by the Macomb County Fire Chiefs Association for their role in responding to a house fire in September 2018.

Photo provided by Nick Sage

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EASTPOINTE — The Macomb County Fire Chiefs Association honored three Eastpointe firefighters March 1 with the Medal of Valor for their role in responding to a deadly house fire last September.

Lt. Michael Hewelt, senior firefighter Joseph Zangara and firefighter Michael Szczesniak — all paramedics — rushed into a burning home Sept. 29, 2018, in an attempt to rescue three individuals trapped inside.

“One of the two teens made it outside and was screaming she had family inside,” said Larry Pokropowicz, battalion chief for the Eastpointe Fire Department and the incident commander at the scene of the fire. “Two of our members went in the back of the house without a houseline to search for the family. We started laying down water in the front. It was high heat and low visibility inside. A third officer joined them. They located the three victims and brought them down. … Unfortunately, the victims didn’t survive.”

The three firefighters who were honored were praised for their courage and their willingness to brave danger in their attempt to save the three residents.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of time to think. Instinct and training takes over,” said Zangara. “It’s what we trained to do, and we were told there were multiple victims inside, so we just jumped into action.”

The medals were awarded to the men at a dinner at Villa Penna March 1.

“We started by honoring them within the department,” said Pokropowicz. “The chief forwarded the recommendation on to the county — the Macomb County Fire Chiefs Association — who awarded them the Medal of Valor. They reviewed the case and agreed this was worthy of distinction. This is the third time our department has received a Medal of Valor in the last 10 years.”

The three firefighters were grateful for the recognition, but said they were just doing their best to live up to the position of firefighter.

“We don’t do this job for medals or awards. We were just doing our job,” said Zangara. “It’s an honor to receive an award, but the other two recipients and myself were just trying to do what was right.”

Pokropowicz said that despite the pride the department feels toward its three members, they only wish they could have gotten the three victims out in time to save them.

“We’re very proud of the three of them. We prepare every day to handle something like this,” said Pokropowicz. “These guys did the best they could in this case, and we wish the outcome had been different, but they still went above and beyond.”

Zanagara and his fellow firefighters hope this can be a teaching moment to stress how important smoke detectors and other fire safety measures can be.

“Our thoughts go out to the family. As a department, we are saddened when tragedy like this happens,” said Zanagara. “Our best advice is to make sure your smoke detectors work. It’s the best way to make sure situations like this are prevented.”

Zanagara also thanked the Roseville and St. Clair Shores fire departments for their assistance that day.

Eastpointe Fire Department officials are proud to hold up Hewelt, Zangara and Szczesniak as examples of outstanding conduct, but they stress that firefighters all over the world brave such danger every day.

“It should be no surprise to anyone in this room that the most worthy firefighter of recognition would argue relentlessly that they were just doing their job. This group … is no exception,” said Eastpointe Deputy Fire Chief Nick Sage when he spoke at the awards ceremony. “It was through their dedication, training and outstanding commitment to our profession that they were able to provide the very best chance of survival for the victims.”

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