Bravest Get Suffolk Honors

By Nedra Rhone

September 30, 2002

Flames shot from every window in the Central Islip house, creating smoke so thick it was blinding. Only the sounds of a 17-year-old girl choking led firefighters to the second-floor bedroom. Their hands reached through the smoke, grabbed the girl from behind and carried her to safety.

Patricia Torres is 19 now and doesn't remember that moment well, but Jimmy Brown and Donald Miller are two firefighters she will never forget.

"I'm so close to them. We're friends," Torres said. "We keep in touch and I tell them what I'm doing in school."

Torres joined about 200 others in applauding yesterday at a ceremony in the Central Islip firehouse as Brown and Miller received a silver medal of valor for rescuing her that morning in February 2001.

Suffolk County's Medal of Valor Day is an annual event honoring the county's volunteer firefighters for heroic acts in the previous year. About 10,000 volunteer firefighters serve communities in Suffolk County. Twelve medals, representing three categories of risk, were awarded yesterday, including one issued posthumously to a lieutenant who was lost in the World Trade Center tragedy.

"Your heroic acts keep us, the volunteer fire service, going," said Donald Gackenheimer, deputy director for fire training at the Suffolk County Fire Academy. "Normal people have no idea what it takes ... to go out there and protect the community."

Firefighters were crawling from the cellar of a burning house when Hauppauge Fire Lt. Peter Brennan arrived at a Ronkonkoma fire in March 2001. Without breathing apparatus, Brennan went inside and led two firefighters from a collapsed staircase to the first floor. He then returned to battle the fire until three firefighters, trapped in the basement, climbed a ladder to safety.

Six months later, Brennan, a volunteer firefighter since the age of 14, died rescuing people at the World Trade Center. "We've known that he is a hero since the day he joined the fire department," said his sister, Nancy Brennan, who accepted his posthumous gold medal. "He would love to be here."

In May, Babylon firefighter Richard Santos responded to a call for help with a vehicle submerged in water near the Babylon Yacht Club. Diving into the 11 p.m. darkness with zero visibility underwater, Santos found the car upside down, its windows buried in mud. Santos dove in several times to attach cables that would lift the vehicle. With cramped muscles and a fatigued body, Santos dove in twice more until he removed a woman from the car.

The faces of his comrades, standing on the shore, ready to pull him out if necessary, gave Santos the strength to keep going back, he said yesterday.

"It didn't seem like it was outside of the normal to me," said Santos looking down at his gold medal in the royal blue velvet box. "I hope I never get another one."

The others who received silver medals were former Capt. Thomas O'Brien of the West Babylon Fire Department, Lt. Robert Sullo of the West Babylon Fire Department, Ronkonkoma firefighter Ron Hatras, Chief Rudolph Sunderman of the Mastic Fire Department and Wyandanch firefighter William Waldron Jr.

The bronze medal winners were Ronkonkoma firefighter Sean Colgan, former Chief Mark Gregory of the East Quogue Fire Department and Miller Place firefighter Eric Svihovec.