Local first responder heroes receive Valor Awards

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BELLEVILLE, NJ — The Two Hundred Club of Essex County held its 56th annual Valor Awards presentation at Nanina’s in the Park, Belleville, on May 10. Since 1966, the organization has provided assistance to dependents of Essex County police officers and firefighters, and New Jersey state troopers, who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

According to 200 Club President Lori A. Hennon-Bell, 28 police officers and 16 firefighters were recognized this year for bravery, dedication to duty, courageous vigilance and selflessness.

“While everyone was at home working virtually for the past two years because of the pandemic, these fine police officers, firefighters and first responders did not have that luxury. They had to show up — the public expected them to show up, protect and respond to their calls for service. Thankfully, and without regard to their own safety, they responded magnificently,” Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, who is a member of the 200 Club’s board of trustees, said in a press release prior to the event.

The following citations were delivered by Fontoura. They have been edited slightly for brevity.


Bloomfield Fire Department

On Sept. 1, 2021, Engine 3 was returning home during Tropical Storm Ida. Traveling down JFK Drive toward James Street, they encountered two empty vehicles floating in the roadway and saw two males emerging from the rising floodwaters under the James Street bridge. 

As Capt. David Parsons walked toward the bridge, he was informed by a Bloomfield police officer that there was a third vehicle with at least one occupant trapped inside. The firefighters observed the car within 6 inches of being completely submerged and saw a light being waved. Parsons alerted firefighters Thomas Laiacona and Jacob Nicolaou to grab rescue equipment and proceed to the car. He then radioed dispatch that they were going to attempt a water rescue and Truck No. 1 and Engine No. 4 should respond.

All three firefighters jumped into about 5 feet of rising floodwaters and began to swim, in full gear. Parsons climbed onto the submerged trunk and saw a flashlight being waved. Laiacona passed an ax to him and he broke out the back window. They pulled a woman from the car and placed her on the roof.

She confirmed she was alone and had not exited the car earlier because she could not swim. Truck No. 1 tossed a life ring into the water for the victim to use, as by now the vehicle was fully submerged. They lowered a 35-foot ladder, and the Engine No. 3 crew assisted the victim to safety.


East Orange Police Department

On Sept. 10, 2020, Sgt. Keanna Thorne and Lt. Marilyn Berrouet responded to an emergency call of a suicide attempt at a six-story apartment building on South Harrison Street.

The caller said a male on the rooftop threatened to jump. Upon arrival, Thorne and Berrouet saw a male sitting on the edge of the roof, dangling his feet over the side. Rushing to the roof, they found a thoroughly distraught man, who was crying and yelling at them, and repeatedly demanding to speak to his brother. The officers began talking to him, distracting him from jumping, and convinced him he could talk to his brother and that they would provide a phone.

Discreetly coordinating their actions, Thorne approached the victim with her own phone, offering it to him. As he reached for the phone, Berrouet grabbed hold of him and the officers wrestled him to the floor of the roof and away from the ledge.


Glen Ridge Police Department

Detective Matthew Perigo was on duty traveling to East Orange on an investigation when he observed a fight involving multiple persons on a roadway, and a car attempting to leave the scene.

Perigo stopped his car and ordered two combatants to separate. At this point one of the actors pulled a knife, stabbed the other multiple times and fled the scene toward a nearby house.

Perigo pursued the assailant with gun drawn and captured him without further incident or force and recovered the knife. Two other stabbing victims also nearby were attended to by responding officers. Unfortunately, the original stabbing victim died, but the two others survived.


Irvington Fire Department

On Jan. 17, 2020, the Irvington Fire Department was dispatched to a fire on Bachman Place. Initially, the fire seemed confined to the basement, and acting Capt. Glen Sheaffer stretched a hose line to the rear basement access point. He was informed by an Irvington police officer that someone was trapped in the basement, and he heard a woman’s cry for help. Without hesitation and before the hose line was charged, Sheaffer entered the smoke-filled basement and found the disoriented victim at the bottom of the stairs. He was able to bring her up the stairs and out of the burning building safely, for transport to Saint Barnabas Medical Center. 


Irvington Police Department

On July 20, 2020, Sgt. Stanton Holder and Detective Juan Owens conducted a motor vehicle stop on 21st Street in Irvington concerning an occupied, double-parked car. As the officers were questioning the driver, they determined that this stop was continuing as an impaired-driving investigation and the driver was ordered from the car.

As the driver was exiting the car, Holder observed a handgun in the rear of his jeans. As Holder went to seize the gun, the actor pushed him into a fence and ran; Owens and Holder followed in a foot chase while the actor kept brandishing his weapon. Eventually the actor was apprehended with the aid of other units assisting the pursuit. Holder and Owens recovered a fully loaded 9 mm gun and a substantial amount of narcotics.


Maplewood Fire Department

On June 2, 2020, Maplewood units were dispatched to a fire on Essex Street with people trapped inside. Arriving units found the front of the house in flames, with fire spreading to the sides.

Engine No. 32 firefighters tried to enter the house and take the stairs but were prevented by the large volume of fire. Firefighters Anthony Marinello and Anthony Pafumi were instructed to set up a 24-foot ground ladder on the side of the building. Despite heavy fire conditions, they ascended the ladder, cleared the glass from the window and entered the house. Marinello located the victim lying on the floor. Hearing the victim had been found, Firefighter James P. Richardella broke away from a hand line to assist. He climbed the ladder and Marinello and Pafumi handed the victim to him. Unassisted, Richardella safely brought the victim down the ladder for transport to the hospital. The victim was in critical condition but ultimately survived.


Maplewood Police Department

On June 2, 2020, Officer Adrian Verdun responded to the same residential fire on Essex Street as above. Upon his arrival, he was confronted with the first-floor front porch engulfed in flames and fire coming from the front and side windows. Neighbors told Verdun that there was a 99-year-old man still in the burning house. 

Unable to enter from the front, Verdun jumped an adjacent fence to gain entry to the rear of the house. He noted a wheelchair access ramp and heard cries from the inside that a daughter needed help removing her father. Verdun entered the smoke-filled house, ordered the daughter out and dragged her father to safety onto the rear lawn.

The daughter told Verdun that there was another resident on the second floor who also began calling for help. Verdun informed Maplewood firefighters, who were now in front of the house. These firefighters entered and recovered this resident, who had suffered a heart attack.


Nutley Fire Department

On Oct. 10, 2020, Tour No. 3 was dispatched to a fire in a one-and-a-half–story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling. Tour No. 3 was at minimum staffing of one captain and four firefighters manning one engine and one ladder. 

While en route, they received reports of multiple explosions and heavy fire in an attached garage, and three residents with physical limitations trapped inside. A police officer reported that he had kicked down a side door but could not enter due to heavy smoke and fire.

While the rest of the crew stretched a hose line, Capt. William Vonroth ordered Firefighter Vincent Lehman to go with him to search for victims.

They encountered extreme heat and thick smoke coming from the basement. Despite knowing they did not have an interior hose line or exterior command to advise them, Vonroth and Lehman exemplified extreme courage and went straight into the flow path to search for victims.

They located an unconscious female and removed her to safety. She spent a week in the hospital and made a full recovery. Sadly, her husband died in the fire. 


West Orange Police Department

On Dec. 27, 2021, Officer Christopher Hernandez was off-duty and shopping in civilian clothes in a Krauszer’s grocery store on Main Street. He observed a person enter the store dressed in a black jacket, black pants, black hat and a black N-95 mask. Hernandez observed this person approach another customer and place a gun to his back.

Believing that a robbery or assault was about to take place, Hernandez immediately intervened, identified himself and attempted to disarm the assailant.

A violent struggle ensued in which the actor struck Hernandez several times with the gun and fired one shot at him, at close quarters, grazing him in the back of the head.

The actor fled the store as Hernandez was dazed and wounded. A countywide description of the attempted robbery and assault resulted in the actor being captured in Newark.