Fire inspector badge stops bloody Christmas Eve knife attack

Copyright 2002 Bergen Record Corporation
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)...12/27/2002

RICHARD COWEN, STAFF WRITER

All Doug Burns was trying to do was get his wife and kids home in time for Santa's visit. But what the Pompton Lakes fire inspector did on that Christmas Eve drive was show them what it takes to restore peace on earth.

Burns saw a commotion in front of the Mexicana bodega on Wanaque Avenue around 11:15 p.m. One man swung what looked like a lead pipe. Instinctively, Burns jammed on the brakes, got out, and ran toward the melee.

"I didn't even think about it," Burns said. "I just got out of the car and ran toward the crowd."

His wife, Sue, frantically blew the horn - hoping that any Pompton Lakes policemen in the area would respond.

The lead pipe turned out to be a 17-inch knife. And it had already found its mark.

Burns saw the blood flowing from Gerardo Almazan's arm. And he saw the rage in the eyes of the man who was about to take another swing, whom police later identified as Joel Bravo, 30.

Burns pulled out the badge he carries identifying him as a fire inspector for the Pompton Lakes Fire Department and stuck it in the man's face.

"There was really nothing between him and me to stop him," Burns said. "He could have kept right on going with the knife. But I guess when he saw the badge, he thought I was a police officer, and he stopped."

For a moment, time stood still. The assailant, his eyes downcast, still held the knife. The crowd stood frozen, waiting for someone to make the next move. Burns' three children, Breanne, 12, Cooper, 8, and Colton, 7, stared at their father from the car, eyes wide with terror.

Sue kept honking the horn and then told Breanne to grab the cellphone from her pocketbook and dial 911.

Then suddenly, it was over. The assailant let go of the knife, and it clanked onto the sidewalk. Burns kicked the knife across the sidewalk, far enough so the assailant couldn't reach it. Then came the wail of sirens.

Pompton Lakes police arrived and arrested Bravo. Meanwhile, Sue Burns took Cooper's shirt off and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding from Almazan's arm. Then they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Doug Burns spent the early hours of Christmas morning at the Pompton Lakes police station, filling out a statement. Bravo was curled up in a jail cell, asleep and facing aggravated assault and weapons charges. Sue Burns faced the difficult task of putting her excited children to bed, which is never easy on the night before Christmas.

"The kids were a little bit shook up," Sue Burns said. "You don't think things like this would happen in a small town. But that's the world we live in. I thought about it later. What if he hadn't dropped the knife? Thank God that badge worked."

Pompton Lakes police preferred to stress the calculation in Burns' derring-do: "He did an outstanding job, and I commend him," said Detective Sgt. Steve Siegfried. "But he took a big chance. God forbid that guy hadn't dropped the knife."

Burns, who is the director of training and development for the New York Mercantile Exchange, works right across the street from the site of World Trade Center. He says that the attack changed his perspective.

"I think since then I've become more alert to what is going on around me," Burns said. "You either act to stop something bad from happening, or you don't. I feel pretty good about what I did."

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Richard Cowen's e-mail address is cowen@northjersey.com