Men who rescue teens from burning car receive honors

By Lynn R. Parks

Dusty Hamilton and Todd Smith were just there to watch the football game. Hamilton, of Blades, planned to root for the home team and his alma mater, Sussex Tech, and Smith for Laurel High, where he is a custodian. In the end, the two men got to watch the game. But before the opening whistle sounded, they and two other Sussex County volunteer firefighters had helped several teenage girls to escape from a burning vehicle. For their efforts, Hamilton, Smith, Jason Boyce and Mark Sheridan were honored by the Delaware State Fire Chiefs Association. The four were among 10 Delaware firefighters who received Heroic Firefighter of the Year awards from the organization. The awards were presented Sept. 15 during the annual conference of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association. "Their quick action, without regard for their own safety, prevented serious injury or death," according to the chiefs' association. "I was very pleased to get the award," said Sheridan, 40, the fire chief with the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department. "It is a very prestigious award." "I knew that I was going to get something at the ceremony, but I didn't know that it was going to be the hero award," added Smith, 36, also a volunteer with the Laurel department. "I don't think that I'm a hero. I am trained to do that kind of thing. I'm here to help other people." Smith said that he was standing in line to buy his admission ticket to the game when he heard a loud collision at the intersection in front of Sussex Tech High School near Georgetown. "I looked toward the highway and saw the accident," he said. "I ran over there and all I could see was a big ball of fire."

"I heard the sound of the accident and I just took off running," said Hamilton, 20, who has been with the Blades Volunteer Fire Company for five years. "I am a firefighter and emergency medical first responder, so I didn't even stop to think about it." When the firefighters got to the accident, one of the three cars involved was on fire. The firefighters worked to get the four occupants, all teenage girls, out of the car. "We got the girl out of the front passenger seat, but had a hard time getting the girl out of the back passenger-side seat," Smith said. "Then we realized that she still had her lap belt on. Once we undid the lap belt, we could get her out. "People told me later that the flames were shooting up over my head," he added. "I didn't even realize it." Hamilton said that after the girls were out of the car, he and the other volunteers assessed their conditions. He kept the girl he was helping from moving her head, in case she had a spinal injury. "And I tried to keep her calm and focused," he added. "She didn't know where she was." Sheridan, who in addition to his volunteer duties is a Sussex County paramedic, helped emergency responders to coordinate transport of the victims to area hospitals. "I believe that us being there made a difference," he said. Kevin Wilson, spokesman for the Delaware State Fire Chiefs Association, said that recipients of the Hero of the Year awards are typically nominated by their fire chiefs. In this case, because Sheridan is a fire chief, the four were nominated by another Sussex County paramedic. Award winners are selected by a three-person committee. "Based on our knowledge and experience, we say, 'We believe this was a heroic act,'" Wilson said. During the awards ceremony, the 10 Heroic Firefighters of the Year each received a plaque. Smith said that he has the plaque hanging on his living room wall. His plaque is not the only reminder of that evening, though. "Every time I go through that intersection in front of Sussex Tech, I get goose bumps," he said.

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