By Mary Jane Dittmar
Lt. Gregory Pickard, of the Bryan (TX) Fire Department, who died of the burn injuries he incurred while attempting to rescue a fellow firefighter in a fire in a social hall, was named the winner of the 2014 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award. Lt. Pickard was part of the rapid intervention team.
"Lt. Pickard's conspicuous act of bravery despite life-threatening conditions exemplifies the deepest nature of the firefighter,” Robert F. Biolchini, chief executive officer of PennWell Corporation, the parent company of Fire Engineering and FDIC, told those in attendance at the Opening Ceremony on Wednesday. "A nature that defies the most powerful human instinct for self-preservation, and so it is fitting that our most elaborate and sincere tributes are made to those who have intentionally given their lives for others, such as Lt. Pickard.”
Mr. Biolchini extended "a special thank you” to all of the firefighters present, " not only for your participation during this special week but also for your loyalty to your duties throughout the year.” He noted: "Chief Ray Downey [for whom the award was named], like every one of you, often repeated during his illustrious career that he was 'just doing his job.'”
"Chief Ray Downey was an extraordinary man whom I first met 18 years ago at FDIC,” related Mr. Biolchini. "He was an icon of duty, honor, and humility, and he personified fire service courage and valor until his death on 9-11-2001.”
Fire Department of New York Battalion Chiefs Joe Downey and Chuck Downey, Ray Downey's sons, participated in the presentation of the 2014 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award. Also present on the stage during the ceremony were National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Director Ron Siarnicki; National Fire Academy Alumni Association President Ron Kanterman; and Bobby Halton, editor in chief of Fire Engineering and education director of FDIC. The Downeys, Siarnicki, Kanterman, Halton, are among the members of the Courage and Valor selection committee.
The Downeys expressed their appreciation to Fire Engineering and PennWell for honoring their father's memory by establishing the Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award and Foundation. Joe Downey, alluding to Lt. Pickard, noted: "His actions that night defy our ability to express in words his devotion, his loyalty, or his love of his fellow firefighters. Lt. Pickard performed his duty gallantly under extremely adverse, dangerous, and life-threatening conditions. In spite of intense and dramatically changing conditions, he chose to enter an extremely hostile environment. Despite the deteriorating conditions, he endeavored to rescue his fellow firefighter, Lt. Eric Wallace. His actions and that of his team exemplified the highest traditions of the fire service.”"
"It is always an extremely difficult task to narrow the selection down to just one firefighter whose actions rose above all others, explained Chuck Downey,” but in the final analysis again this year, there was one who stood above the rest.”
On February 15, 2013, a fire started inside the Knights of Columbus hall in Bryan, Texas, when an electrical fan cord shorted out. The cord ignited a plastic first aid kit, extended to the counters, and then to the remainder of the structure.
The Bryan Fire Department was notified at 11:19 p.m. Multiple companies responded.
Lt. Eric Wallace, the first officer on the scene, arrived on Engine 1 and determined the fire should be attacked offensively, since a small amount of fire was visible in a corner of the structure. After about 13 minutes inside the structure, Lt. Wallace and FF. Eric Juergen began to exit the building because their air supply was depleted. They became separated, and Lt. Wallace became lost and disoriented in the heavy smoke and the debris that caused him to lose contact with the hoseline.
Lt. Wallace radioed the incident commander and reported that he was lost and low on air. The incident commander directed the rapid intervention team (RIT), which was standing right outside ready to respond, to enter the building to rescue Lt. Wallace. The RIT duties were assigned to Engine 5, comprised of Lt. Greg Pickard, FF. Ricky Mantey, and FF. Mitch Moran.
As Lt. Pickard and FFs Mantey, and Moran prepared to answer Lt. Wallace's Mayday call, fire conditions inside began to rapidly deteriorate. The roof on two sides of the building stated to fail, and the fire broke through violently.
Without hesitation, Engine 5's crew immediately entered the involved structure without a protective hoseline to search for Lt. Wallace. Lt. Pickard led the crew into that hostile environment without hesitation. They found Lt. Wallace within two minutes, about 40 to 50 feet inside the bingo area, which was under very heavy fire conditions. As they were moving him to the exit, a sustained flashover occurred.
When the flashover occurred, Engine 2 was inside continuing firefighting efforts in an adjacent area of the building. The Engine 2 officer came back to the bingo area, where he witnessed the crew of Engine 5 carrying Lt. Wallace across the room and fully engulfed by fire. Even though they were engulfed in the flashover and their protective clothing and equipment were burning, the crew members of Engine 5 never relented in their efforts to continue dragging Lt. Wallace out of the building.
Exhibiting superhuman focus and enduring unimaginable pain, all three rescuers collapsed from their burn injuries 10 feet from the exit.
All of Engine 5's crew, as well as Lt. Wallace, were severely burned during the flashover. Lt. Pickard, FF. Mantey, and FF. Moran were removed by other firefighters. The four firefighters were transported to the hospital trauma unit.
Lt. Wallace succumbed to his injuries shortly after arrival at the hospital. Lt. Pickard succumbed later that day.
While all Engine 5 crew members performed with exceptional courage and heroism, it was Lt. Pickard who didn't hesitate to lead the crew into the hostile environment with the undeniable determination to find and remove Lt. Wallace. Lt. Pickard, FF. Mantey, and FF. Moran were airlifted to the University of Texas Medical Branch Blocker Burn Center in Galveston. FFs. Mantey and Moran remained in Galveston for more than three months, undergoing numerous surgeries, treatments, and therapy. They continued treatment for several months after being released from the burn unit and still face several months of ongoing care.
In his pre-presentation remarks, Mr. Biolchini summarized Lt. Pickard's many attributes and actions that correspond to those exemplified by Ray Downey and are implicit in the Courage and Valor Award:
Lt. Gregory Pickard exemplified the highest traditions of the fire service, risking his life in an attempt to rescue a fallen fellow firefighter. His courage, perseverance, and selfless efforts are to be honored for directing the valiant rescue of Lt. Wallace. Lt. Pickard's dedicated and aggressive actions in attempting to save the life of another firefighter are in the highest traditions of the Bryan (TX) Fire Department. Lt. Pickard's presence of mind, selflessness, and ability to maintain his composure under extremely stressful and personally dangerous circumstances make him a hero.
Lt. Gregory Pickard joined the Bryan (TX) Fire Department in 1981. He was a member of the rescue team and of Texas Task Force 1. He was the urban search and rescue team manager. He was an EMT and held advanced firefighter certification.
He is survived by his wife Susan and two children, Robin Carpenter and Jacob. Jacob is a firefighter/paramedic with the College Station (TX) Fire Department.
Susan Pickard, Lt. Pickard's widow, accepted from Mr. Biolchini the 2014 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Medal Award, along with a $35,000 check from the Fire Engineering Courage and Valor Foundation.