Wednesday, April 24, 2013: Stamford Fire Fighter and Local 786 Member, Bill O’Connell (Group 2, Rescue 1) recieved the 2013 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award this morning at the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Robert F. Biolchini, chief executive officer of PennWell Corporation, parent company of Fire Engineering/FDIC, made the presentation. Assisting in the ceremony were Battalion Chiefs Chuck and Joseph Downey, Fire Department of New York, sons of Chief Ray Downey; Robert Halton, editor-in-chief of Fire Engineering and FDIC educational chairman; Dennis Compton, Chairman of the Board for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation; and Ronald Kanterman, administrator, National Fire Academy Alumni Association.
“I am once again deeply honored to participate in the presentation of the Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award. Chief Ray Downey was an extraordinary man, whom I first met 17 years ago at FDIC,” Biolchini related. “He is an icon for duty, honor, and humility, which he epitomized throughout his life, and he personified fire service courage and valor to his death on September 11, 2001. Like every one of you, he often repeated during his illustrious career that he was ‘just doing his job.’”
“This year marks the 12th anniversary of that tragic day on 9/11 when we lost our Dad along with 342 of our brother FDNY firefighters,” Joe Downey recalled. “In their memories this morning, we recognize the actions of Firefighter William O’Connell, actions that prove how our training and dedication can result in the most important of outcomes, saving lives.”
Biolchini and Chuck and Joe Downey described for the audience the life-saving scenario during which Firefighter O’Connell’s conspicuous act of bravery under life-threatening conditions saved the life of Dinorah Viaira. O’Connell remained calm and focused and re-entered a hostile environment multiple times despite continuously deteriorating conditions.
The Emergency Scenario
On July 22, 2012, at 11:30 p.m., the crews of Engine 5 and Rescue 1 responded to a report of a capsized boat in Stamford Harbor. On arrival, they were informed that two individuals had been rescued from the water by a police boat on scene, one person was missing, and two were reported trapped inside the hull of the capsized vessel. The boat, a 27-foot Sea Ray, had capsized while navigating the channel between Long Island Sound and the harbor.
Because of limited visibility and the boat’s being in 50 feet of water, a team of divers was sent into the cabin to remove the trapped occupants. Two divers, Firefighters William O’Connell and Joseph Meida, were assigned to make the dive to contact the trapped individuals. A third diver was assigned as a surface rescuer.
The significant amount of debris in the water and the late hour caused visibility below the surface to be minimal, and rescue conditions were deemed hazardous. Meida made the initial dive into the boat’s cabin to make contact with the trapped occupants and to assess conditions. Following the initial assessment, O’Connell, equipped with the pony bottle to aid in the removal of victims, made a dive and entered the cabin of the capsized vessel.
A hatchway opening of approximately 18 inches and the significant amount of floating debris in the water and in the cabin, made the dive treacherous for the scuba-equipped firefighters. On entering the cabin, O’Connell made contact with the two victims. They were huddled together in the water up to their necks and had been trapped for approximately 45 minutes. The victims, one male and one female, were in the initial stages of hypothermia, and the water in the harbor was approximately 69°F.
O’Connell, once inside the cabin, removed his air supply in an attempt to coach the female victim on the use of the scuba regulator. He then dove in the cabin for the hatchway in an attempt to have her follow him out. After getting stuck twice on exiting the hatchway, O’Connell decided to return the female occupant to the safety of the air pocket.
He then swam to the top to discuss other options and reassess the action plan with Meida. O’Connell then reentered the capsized boat and coached the male occupant on the use of the regulator. He was then able to guide the male occupant to the hatchway, where diver Meida was waiting to assist the male occupant to the surface, where he was pulled safely from the water.
O’Connell then retrieved a pony bottle for the third attempt at rescuing the female victim, who at this time could be heard screaming hysterically for them to get her out of there.
O’Connell reentered the cabin of the submerged vessel for the third time and again tried to coax the female victim out to the hatchway. During this third entry into the submerged boat, O’Connell removed his mask and now noticed that his breathing was labored and his heart rate had increased rapidly. He recognized that the air in the cabin was no longer sustainable for breathing and that both he and the victim were in great danger if they did not exit quickly–either the boat would sink or they would become incapacitated from a lack of oxygen.
Recognizing that he was dealing with a reluctant victim who would not be able to use the equipment effectively and that the situation was deteriorating rapidly, O’Connell made a bold life-or-death decision.
He positioned himself in front of the hatchway door and reached underwater to grab the female victim’s ankle. After grasping her ankle, he pulled her underwater and out through the capsized boat’s hatchway. Once through the hatchway, O’Connell then grabbed the victim and pushed her toward the surface of the water, where the surface diver and Meida were waiting to assist.
Because of the heroic efforts of the rescuers, four of the five victims reported survived the event. The fifth victim, who died in the accident, was Keith Morris, age 30, the driver of the boat and a New Rochelle firefighter. O’Connell, along with the other four victims, was transported to the emergency room for medical attention for a laceration he received while performing the rescue.
For his heroism, courage, and composure under pressure, O’Connell was awarded the Medal of Honor and a unit citation from the Stamford (CT) Fire and Rescue Department.
In making the award, Biolchini stated:
“On July 22, 2012, Firefighter William O’Connell exemplified the highest traditions of the fire service. Firefighter O’Connell, under life-threatening and extremely dangerous conditions, employed reasoning and innovation to accomplish his mission. His tenacity, perseverance, and selfless efforts are to be credited for rescuing a trapped and drowning citizen.
“Firefighter O’Connell’s dedicated and aggressive actions in saving the life of another are in the highest traditions of the Stamford Fire and Rescue Department. His presence of mind, selflessness, and ability to maintain his composure under extremely stressful and personally dangerous circumstances make him a hero.”
Firefighter William O’Connell was presented with the 2013 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Medal along with a $35,000 check from the Fire Engineering Courage and Valor Foundation.
O’Connell is an 11-year veteran of the Stamford Fire Rescue Department. He began his career in the fire service as a volunteer with the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department in 1998. In addition to the Stamford Fire Rescue Department Medal of Honor, O’Connell received the Police and Fireman’s Insurance Association Hero’s Hall of Fame award, a Commendation from the City of New Rochelle, and the American Red Cross Community Hero of Connecticut award for the July 22 rescues. He has been married to his wife Corey for 14 years; they have two sons, Liam and Devin.