Members of Montrose Search and Rescue Team were among 38 recognized for extraordinary service.
By Mary O’KEEFE
On Tuesday at a luncheon ceremony the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recognized their own for outstanding and honorable service.
“These [men and woman] have gone above and beyond the call of duty,” said Sheriff Lee Baca, as the ceremony ended.
Among the 38 extraordinary men and women who were honored were those who serve at Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station.
Meritorious Conduct Gold Medals were awarded to Deputy Jeff Martin, Reserve Chief Michael Leum, Reserve Capt. Janet Henderson, Reserve Sgt. Bruce Parker, Reserve Sgt. John McKently, Reserve Deputy Doug Cramoline, Reserve Deputy Fred Koegler and Reserve Deputy Fred Wenzel.
All are members of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team that responded with other deputies and search and rescue members to a call for support at Fire Camp 16 deep in the Angeles National Forest, the area where two Los Angeles County Firefighters lost their lives while fighting the Station Fire.
On Aug. 26, 2009 the Station Fire began. Five days into the fire, the L.A. County Fire Dept. requested assistance by sheriff personnel to respond to a fatal accident at Camp 16.
Reports came in that the area was engulfed in flames. Several attempts were made by rescue helicopters but it was determined the area was too dangerous for air support. The call went out to the sheriff’s department.
The team members were briefed on the life-threatening circumstances of the mission and all were offered the chance to opt out. None did. They were told to remove their bulletproof vest to help deal with dehydration and intense heat from the fire.
They broke into teams and decided to make their way to the camp through various paths.
“Mike [Leum] and I were driving together that night,” recalled Capt. Henderson.
Henderson and Leum headed to the camp via Big Tujunga Canyon.
“We got stopped by fire and downed power lines,” Henderson said of the first part of their attempt to navigate the road.
Another team had gone before them and were calling back warnings of downed lines and other obstacles in their path, however the fire was moving fast and things changed quickly.
The fire and power lines did not stop them, just slowed them down a little.
“We just redirected ourselves to get there,” Henderson said.
She added the entire time they were making their way up the mountain neither thought of not going forward.
“The fire was all around us. Mike and I drove through a stream of fire going across the highway,” she said. “We just drove through it.”
When they arrived at the camp they met other members who had made it through. The vehicle of firefighters Arnaldo Quinones and Tedmund Hall had gone over the side of the cliff near Camp 16.
“The fire was so hot it had melted the boots of some of the camp members that had gone down the hill to help the [firefighters],” Cramoline said.
The rescue members assisted firefighters as they retrieved their fallen members.
“We stood in a line as the [men’s bodies] moved down the line and onto a fire [vehicle],” Cramoline added.
The memory of that day has stayed with Henderson.
“Every time I go past [Big Tujunga Canyon] I relive that night,” she said.
Louise Gill’s husband Dennis was part of the response team to Camp 16. At the time he served out of the North County Correctional Facility and West Hollywood Station.
Gill said she knew her husband was responding to the Station Fire and would watch the intensity of the flames on television. It was not until he had returned from the camp that he told her exactly what he had been through.
“I think if everyone just went on one ride-along with a [member of the sheriff’s department] they would understand how difficult and important his or her job is,” she said.
Tuesday’s ceremony was a time to recognize those who go beyond their job description.
“It isn’t why we become members of [MSR], but it is nice to be recognized for what you do,” Henderson said.
“I feel honored, “ Cramoline added.
Leum also received a second Meritorious Conduct Gold Medal recognition for his actions to save a man on the Foothill (210) Freeway.
On May 15, 2010, Leum and his family were traveling on the 210 freeway. Leum was off duty at the time. His wife noticed a man with blood all over his clothing, running in traffic lanes. It was later found the man had been a patient at Olive View Hospital and had just attempted to kill himself by cutting his neck several times.
Leum narrowly missed the man with his own car. He pulled over to the side of the freeway and, as his wife called 911, Leum attempted to assist the troubled man.
The traffic was speeding down the highway; Leum knew it was only a matter of time before the man was hit. Leum ran into the freeway and pulled the man to safety onto the shoulder of the road.
The man was extremely agitated and was still armed with the knife he has apparently used in his suicide attempt earlier. Leum engaged the man in conversation, and then quickly disarmed him.
As they waited for the California Highway Patrol to respond, Leum had to restrain the man to stop him from running back into traffic. CHP arrived and Leum assisted as they took the man into custody.
Leum echoed Henderson as to why they enter the service.
“We don’t do what we do for [these awards],” he said.
He added that sheriff’s personnel perform heroic acts everyday.