Indianapolis, IN – Captain Doug McDonald, of the Novato (CA) Fire Protection District, was awarded the 2004 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award at the FDIC 2004’s Opening Session. Robert F. Biolchini, CEO, PennWell Corporation, made the presentation, assisted by Battalion Chief Joe Downey and Captain Chuck Downey of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), sons of the late FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downey, in whose memory the award was instituted. Ray Downey, one of the most highly decorated members in FDNY and a renowned rescue specialist, perished along with 342 other FDNY firefighters in the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
“Although the award is for a singular act of extraordinary courage and valor in the line of duty, it recognizes all of you for your daily commitment to the core fire service values and to life safety,” Biolchini told the audience. “We memorialize their sacrifice today and each year at FDIC. PennWell, in Chief Downey’s name, recognizes your legacy- the work and sacrifice of generations of firefighters to come.”
Joe and Chuck Downey recounted the events of the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, California, October 29, 2003, in which Engineer Steven Rucker perished and McDonald and the other two crewmembers were injured.
At approximately noon on October 29, during the height of the Cedar Fire, Captain Doug McDonald, Engineer Shawn Kreps, Engineer Steve Rucker, and Firefighter/Paramedic Barrett Smith responded as a Novato (CA) Fire Protection District strike team, assigned to protect residential structures in the threatened rural community of Wynola. They arrived in a Type III engine, with a 500-gallon tank and a 500-gpm pump.
McDonald identified the house and the engine as areas of refuge and ordered that an ax be placed at the back door in case forcible entry was needed. Handlines were stretched in an attempt to defend the structure. In the early afternoon, the fire, fueled by heavy brush and oak fuels, and driven by a steady 17 mile-per-hour wind with gusts greater than 30 miles per hour, made a continuous run up the canyon directly at 920 Orchard Lane. The fire covered one-half mile in less than two minutes. As the fire’s intensity increased below them, McDonald ordered his men to retreat and use the engine as a shield. The two charged handlines were staffed at both ends of the apparatus.
There was a significant increase in wind, and a flaming front was blowing across the driveway toward the garage. Flame lengths in the canyon directly below them reached 40 to 50 feet. Because of the intense heat, McDonald ordered his crew to retreat to the structure. They experienced intense heat on leaving the shield of the engine. The bushes along the patio were burning. The firefighters ran for the safety of the house. Rucker was injured and had fallen two times. McDonald had managed to get him back on his feet, but Rucker fell a third time and couldn’t get up.
By this time, McDonald had suffered severe burns over 28 percent of his body-his face, ears, elbows, hands, torso, and legs-and sustained a respiratory inhalation injury. Nevertheless, he continued to try to drag Rucker toward the house. Finally, in great distress, McDonald sought the shelter of the house. Despite his injuries, McDonald made numerous attempts to leave the house to save Rucker; he did not know that Rucker had perished. Each time, the heat drove McDonald back. The house was now burning. McDonald ordered his men, all injured, to run for the engine in an attempt an escape. The entire area was now engulfed in thick, dark smoke; severe heat prevented them from making a quick search for Rucker. The men quickly disconnected the two handlines and entered the partly melted engine.
McDonald transmitted another “firefighter down” message. Desperately attempting to outrun the fire, they inched down the driveway in low visibility, using the pavement edge as a guide. When they finally reached a safe area and made contact with other firefighters, McDonald ordered that his two crewmembers receive medical treatment first, even though he was the most seriously injured.
McDonald accepted the award not only on his behalf, but “also on the behalf of my crewmembers Shawn Kreps, Barrett Smith, and Steve Rucker, who made the ultimate sacrifice that day; the Novato Fire Protection District, under the leadership of Chief Jeffrey Meston; and my family.”
In addition to Joe and Chuck Downey, members of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the National Fire Academy Alumni Association served on the selection committee.
For more information on the award, visit www.courageandvalor.com