The Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award, presented by the Fire Engineering Courage and Valor Foundation, commemorates the life and career achievements of Deputy Chief Ray Downey, chief of rescue operations and 39-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Meet this year’s nominees for the award, which is presented annually at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Lt. Michael McCastland, Oak Lawn Fire Department, Lemont, Illinois. He is a 20-year veteran of the fire service.
Comment: Thomas K. Freeman, fire chief and administrator of the Lisle-Woodridge (IL) Fire District describes “the extremely profound act of courage and valor by a heroic firefighter in the State of Illinois” as follows:
On May 13, 2009, at about 0318 hours, an automatic-aid engine company responded from the Village of Oak Lawn Fire Department to adjacent Hometown Fire District to a report of an occupied house fire. On arrival, fire companies found a working fire in a two-story frame residential duplex. The companies began systematic vent, enter, and search operation and engaged in an aggressive fire attack and a primary search of both floors. Additional companies began arriving in a timely manner.
As companies pressed to the seat of the fire, ventilation was underway, and backup lines were being led out. The fire was rapidly growing in intensity on the second floor, working its way through the entire structure and, ultimately, down the single stairwell occupied by fire companies mounting an attack. As fire overwhelmed the strong hold the initial fire companies had gained on the fire, the incident commander (IC) ordered evacuation and commenced defensive fireground operations. Conditions in the two-story structure were completely untenable; there was no chance of survival for the occupants.
Roll calls were conducted at the exterior of the building, and the IC soon discovered that a company officer from the Hometown Fire District was unaccounted for. The firefighter who had last been with the missing member stated that they were on the second floor and had become separated during the evacuation order. At this point, McCastland, with the support of his Oak Lawn Engine 26 and without regard for their personal safety, commenced an interior attack, forcing their way a step at a time up the interior stairwell until, in spite of intense heat and zero visibility, he made the second-floor landing. In a desperate attempt to locate the missing firefighter, McCastland repeatedly called out for a response.
Backup firefighters were forced to the floor by intense heat. McCastland called out for the missing firefighter and began a search into interior rooms off the connecting hallway. Completely undaunted in his task, McCastland pressed his company in its mission, fully realizing that seconds would make the difference in the ability to rescue the trapped firefighter. Finally, there was a muffled response that hardly was audible, and, through the reflection of a glancing hand light beam, the missing firefighter was discovered in a fetal position in the corner of the fire room. McCastland grabbed the firefighter by his personal protective ensemble and removed him to the second-floor landing to the safety of his fire company. At McCastland’s orders, all firefighters, including the rescued firefighter, retreated down the failing stairwell to the outside of the structure. McCastland was the final officer to exit this fully involved and structurally unsafe building.
MARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.