Courage and Valor Nominee: Joel and John Rechlitz

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.
Lieutenant Joel Rechlitz, Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department. He has been in the fire service for 11 years and a member of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department since September 1998.

Heavy Equipment Operator John Rechlitz, Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department. He began his career with the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department on July 9, 1990. He is a heavy equipment operator and has been a member of the fire service for 19 years.

Comment: The Rechlitz brothers went beyond the call of duty that afternoon. They responded as off-duty firefighters to a chaotic scene as they would have if they were on duty, but without the proper tools, equipment, protective gear, or an SCBA. They were able to think rationally in those intense moments when every second counted. Tiffany Wynn, City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


On July 19, 2009, at approximately 4:50 p.m., John and Joel Rechlitz, two brothers and Milwaukee firefighters, were at John’s home celebrating a birthday for John’s 17-year-old daughter. When she requested an ice cream cake, the wives of John and Joel headed out to the local Dairy Queen to buy one. On the way, they witnessed a tragic auto accident: A 1992 Chevrolet Blazer had hit the curb, traveled on its side for about 100 feet, and burst into flames. The entire back half of the SUV was on fire, and black smoke filled the air. A four-year-old boy, securely fastened in his booster seat, was trapped in the back seat. John’s wife’s immediate action was to call her husband, who arrived on-scene with Joel. John’s first impulse when he arrived was to say,” Oh my God, I hope nobody is inside that vehicle.” The boy’s mother was screaming, “My child is still in there…my baby is inside.”

Amid the chaos, the firefighters took turns at making multiple attempts to grab the boy out of his car seat through the windshield. They were not able to locate the seat belt release button that secured the boy. They both realized that they would need to cut the belt with a knife to remove the child. Joel screamed for a knife; a bystander, fortunately, had a pocketknife and handed it to Joel, who reentered the burning SUV through the broken windshield and cut the seat belt. This freed the boy (DJ).

A neighbor pulled a water hose to the scene. The firefighters carried DJ to a nearby island, removed his clothes, and hosed him down to prevent his burns from becoming worse. DJ had suffered burns over 30 percent of his body. The firefighters suffered second- and third-degree burns and lacerations.

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.

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