Corrections Officer Ugur Akilli didn’t think twice about rushing into a neighbor’s burning home in Upper Deerfield Township last week.
The former volunteer firefighter knew what he had to do. It’s what anyone would have done, he said.
Akilli rescued four children and their grandparents as the two-story home was rapidly engulfed in flames on June 17.
The 33-year-old officer was honored for his heroism during a ceremony Thursday at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton.
State corrections officials and union representatives gathered for the occasion and PBA Local 105 Vice President Mike Gallagher presented Akilli with a plaque recognizing his courage and bravery.
Gallagher described the officer as a great colleague and a down-to-earth guy.
“He’s an outstanding officer. He’s sharp … and he’s a lifesaver now. He’s a hero.
“We’re trained at the academy to run towards danger, not away … he went in and that training saved lives.”
When Akilli walked out of his house that afternoon, he saw smoke coming from the nearby residence.
He yelled to a neighbor, who was outside at the time, to call 911 as he ran to the house, where flames were coming from the garage.
Another neighbor, Rony Salvatierra, was already at the home banging on the front door to alert the occupants.
“The fire was spreading rapidly, so I burst through the front door and grabbed the 5-year-old-girl, Akilli said. “I yelled for everyone to get out of the house as I ran her to safety.”
Akilli ran back in to rescue the grandparents and three boys, ages 8, 14 and 16.
The fire spread quickly.
“When I noticed the smoke, it had already reached the roof,” he said. “In five minutes, that house was engulfed.”
The occupants of the home were in a state of shock as they realized what was happening, the officer said.
“They had no idea the garage was on fire … I was just grabbing them and pushing them out of their own house.”
The heat was so intense that one of the garage doors had started warping when they first spotted the fire, Salvatierra said. As Akilli ran up, he told him there were people in the home.
“He runs in, I run in after him and we started pulling people out,” Salvatierra said.
He was grateful that Akilli was there and sprang into action.
“He knew to grab people and pull them out and that was really good that we had him on the block.”
Akilli was worried the family may have been in various parts of the home.
“Luckily, they were all in close proximity where I could get everybody out,” he said. “Once everyone was out of the house, we moved to a safe distance as we waited for emergency personnel to arrive.”
The mom and dad, who expressed their gratitude for the rescue, were at work when the fire broke out and the grandparents were watching the kids. The family is staying with relatives and they plan to rebuild, Akilli said.
The fire was not deemed suspicious, according to a New Jersey State Police spokesman. An investigator with the state fire marshal’s office confirmed the blaze began in the garage and caused heavy damage throughout the home. The cause is currently listed as undetermined.
Akilli, who has worked as a corrections officer for more than seven years, has lived most of his life in Upper Deerfield, coming to the United States from Turkey at age 3.
He remains modest about the rescue.
Akilli previously served as a volunteer firefighter in neighboring Fairfield Township for three years. He’s had all of the training and has been in burning buildings before, he said, but the drive to assist others in trouble is universal.
“It’s basic human instinct to go help people,” he said.
Back at work, Akilli’s fellow officers have praised him for his heroism.
“People are shaking my hand, congratulating me,” he said. “They would have all done the same thing.”
A GoFundMe drive was launched to help the family and they are accepting donations of clothing for the kids at CK Nails in Upper Deerfield Plaza. More details are included in the Facebook post below.
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