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Miami-Dade firefighter receives highest honor for dramatic marina rescue

Published on 26 August 2009

At Fire Rescue International (FRI) 2009, Firefighter Nicholas DiGiacomo of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue will be presented with the International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor, co-sponsored by Motorola and the IAFC
Firefighter Nicholas DiGiacomo will receive the International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award at FRI
International award will be presented at Fire Rescue International (FRI) 2009

Firefighter Nicholas DiGiacomo of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue is this year's recipient of the International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor, co-sponsored by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and Motorola, Inc. The award will be presented at the 136th Annual Fire Rescue International on August 27 in Dallas.

Named for one of the first fire chiefs in the United States, the award commemorates Ben Franklin, a prime contributor to the wealth of tradition symbolizing the fire service worldwide.

Now in its 40th year, the International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by the IAFC. It recognizes firefighters around the world for their heroism, expert training, leadership and safe practices.

Early in the morning on March 31, 2008, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) responded to a call from the Coast Guard reporting a fire at the Miami Beach Marina. Heavy flames were engulfing two multimillion dollar yachts, with radiant heat and smoke threatening a third. The fire was so intense, the possibility of anyone surviving inside was doubtful.

As MDFR Fireboat 1 began its water assault on the side of the vessels, screams were heard from one of the yachts. Moving toward its bow, the crew was stunned to see hands frantically signaling from a porthole.

Two people were trapped inside, with no way of escaping the inferno. Both were holed up in a bathroom below the main deck, running the shower to shield themselves from the heat, gasping for air through the porthole as heavy flames and high winds swept the boat.

As fire raged on the yacht, Firefighter DiGiacomo and his officer in charge (OIC) leapt aboard a private fishing boat that pulled alongside-the only vessel that could get close enough. Using a chainsaw and K-12 saw, they worked to open the fiberglass hull, which was extremely hard and difficult to cut.

DiGiacomo displayed quick thinking, selflessness and courage throughout the rescue

Seeing thick, heavy smoke swirling down to the victims, DiGiacomo immediately removed his mask and passed it through the porthole. He told the victims to breathe through it and share it. He then threaded a hose through the porthole and instructed them to use it to suppress the fire that was threatening their refuge.

Time was running out as fire consumed the yacht. It began to sink and its portholes dipped dangerously close to the water line. Even worse, the victims had emptied the air bottle and their safe refuge was filling with boiling water. As they crouched on top of the bathroom vanity, Firefighter DiGiacomo hooked up a second bottle so they could breathe. After a long 40 minutes, the hull was breached and he pulled both victims to safety. Miraculously, they were okay and transferred to Mount Sinai Medical Center in stable condition.

Not only did Firefighter DiGiacomo display quick thinking, selflessness and courage, he risked his own life and gave up his own equipment to save others. Asked about the rescue, he said, "When you see people, pressing their faces to the portholes and gasping for air, there's no part of your brain that lets you think they are going to die. It's ‘We're going to get them out.'"

If not for the heroic efforts of Firefighter Nicholas DiGiacomo, his OIC and the Fireboat 1 crew, both victims would have been overcome by toxic smoke and perished.

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