Detroit to honor heroics of 50 public safety workers

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Elizabeth Szmrecsanyi battles blazes daily as a Detroit firefighter.

But it’s not every day that a firefighter has to deal with brutally cold weather conditions to save a toddler from a burning home.

Detroit firefighter Elizabeth Szmrecsanyi

One early morning in January, Szmrecsanyi and her crew from Engine 46 were called to a two-story house that was fully engulfed in flames. Seven people were trapped inside.

Desperate to escape, some of the home’s inhabitants hung out of windows or jumped to safety, including a mother who had thrown her baby to someone waiting below.

“It was chaotic,” said Szmrecsanyi. “Everyone was screaming. Neighbors and family were obviously upset. It takes us being calm and doing what we have to do in a timely fashion.”

For her life-saving actions that day, Szmrecsanyi will be honored Wednesday with among more than 50 Detroit police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel at the Detroit Public Safety Foundation’s 2016 Above & Beyond ceremony. The event will be held in the Grand Ballroom at Cobo Center.

Police Chief James Craig and Fire Commissioner Eric Jones are expected to present awards including the Medal of Valor, the Purple Heart, City Change Maker Award and the Public Safety Partner Award.

“I’m honored,” Szmrecsanyi said. “It’s a group effort always. Without the team we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”

Receiving the Purple Heart posthumously Wednesday will be Capt. Kenneth Steil, 46, who died Sept. 17, days after being shot around his bullet-proof vest by a man with a sawed-off shotgun, and Officer Myron Jarrett, 40, who was fatally struck while helping a traffic accident investigation on Oct. 28.

During that early morning fire in January, Szmrecsanyi learned that a 2-year-old boy was still in the house. She and another firefighter entered the home through the front door but quickly realized they weren’t going to reach the child that way. Szmrecsanyi then went through an upstairs window after a neighbor told her the location of the child’s bedroom.

“I had flames coming up above me,” she said. “You couldn’t see. It was complete black.”

It took her about 30 seconds to find the toddler, who was lying in a hall.

“Every second counts in a fire,” she said. “Especially when the child doesn’t have a breathing apparatus.”

Szmrecsanyi, 40, picked up the youngster and handed him to a firefighter waiting on a ladder. She then resumed putting out the fire and trying to locate an adult still thought to be in the house. There were no other people located.

Detroit police Officer Darren Long

Another Purple Heart recipient is Detroit police Officer Darren Long, who was shot in the leg while pursuing a suspect on foot in November 2015. Officer Charles Howard also will receive the Purple Heart after he was grazed by a bullet in the same incident.

Long reflected on sacrifices that officers make and the loss of Steil and Jarrett, whom he knew.

“People really don’t understand what we go through,” Long said. “People don’t really understand what we do on a day to day basis when we leave our front door.”

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