Michael C. Reilly
“The Hard Charger Award”
By: Adam J. Hansen
When brought into this world we have no say over who our family will be or the individual members who come along with it. At the end of the day our family is our family - good, bad or indifferent. Throughout one’s life, relationships with family members will have their ups and downs, but in the end, we always know we love them with all of our hearts. The natural selection of our biological family isn’t much different from how our firefighter family is chosen. Many who enter the fire service take several tests prior to a department “family” asking them to join. Without any say, we are assigned to a firehouse and arrive on day one to a cast of characters who, over time, will become our second family. Like fighting siblings, we grow to become each other's protectors and keepers. The events that we face at home - ups and downs, laughs and arguments, births and deaths - will undoubtedly be experienced with our second family, our fire family, as well.
When a family suffers a loss, petty differences and grudges get put aside. Family comes first; we are there for each other. The fire service, unlike a traditional family, extends far and wide, across the country, as a band of brothers and sisters. When word comes of a firefighter LODD; we stop, reflect, and grieve as if they were from our own department. Whether the loss is 3,000 miles away or the neighboring department, losing a member of our family is never easy. We celebrate our dearly departed by remembering who they were, their heroic actions, and to never forget the countless lives they impacted while on this earth. Michael C. Reilly was a cherished member of our family and we continue to honor him by commemorating his life.
Fire Department City of New York
Safety And Inspection Services Command
BRONX BOX 3-3-2797
1575 WALTON AVENUE
August 27, 2006
On Sunday, August 27, 2006, at 1230 hours, the New York City Fire Department’s Bronx Communications Office received a telephone alarm reporting a fire in a store at 1575 Walton Avenue. The initial response to Bronx Box 2797 was two engine companies, two ladder companies and one battalion. Engine Company 42 arrived at 1233 hours, observed heavy smoke venting from the front of a 99 Cent Store, and transmitted a 10-75. Standard firefighting operations were initiated for a fire in a taxpayer building.
The fire building was a one story non-fireproof (NFP) commercial building. This corner building was a five sided, irregular shaped taxpayer. Approximately six years earlier, on July 17, 2000, a third alarm severely damaged this structure. This building underwent an extensive alteration that was not consistent with the architectural plans filed. Three stores occupied the building: a 99 Cent Store, a cell phone store, and a laundromat.
The fire occupancy of the The 99 Cent Store was approximately 45 feet wide by 65 feet deep. The fire originated on the first floor in the rear of the store and quickly extended to the ceiling. The combustible stock ignited the Masonite ceiling which was nailed directly to the bottom of the roof joists. Due to the fire conditions, a second alarm was transmitted.
A V–shaped collapse of the first floor of the 99 Cent Store occurred twenty-one minutes after the arrival of fire department units. This collapse took place without warning, burying members in the collapsed area. The first floor collapse was a result of a cellar column failure. Following the collapse a third alarm was transmitted.
Ten members fell into the collapsed area when it occurred. Four members of Engine Company 92 were immediately removed by the Firefighter Assist and Search Team (FAST). The six remaining members were trapped in the collapse.
With great teamwork and fortitude, all 6 members were extricated The Ladder Company Firefighter was extricated in approximately four minutes; the Engine Company 75 Back-Up Firefighter in approximately 43 minutes; the Ladder Company 44 Officer in approximately 56 minutes; the Battalion 17 Chief in approximately one hour; Lieutenant Howard J. Carpluk, the Engine Company 75 Officer, in approximately 1 hour and 21 minutes; and Firefighter Michael C. Reilly, the Engine Company 75 Nozzle Firefighter, in approximately 1 hour and 41 minutes.
Lieutenant Howard J. Carpluk Jr. of Engine Company 75 (Assigned Engine Company 42) and Probationary Firefighter Michael C. Reilly of Engine Company 75 were transported by the FDNY and EMS to Bronx Lebanon Hospital. Both members succumbed to their injuries.
Michael C. Reilly was born into this world on April 3rd, 1981 in White Plains, New York, by his loving parents, Michael Senior and Monica. When Michael was four years of age his parents decided to move the family and settle into the suburb of Ramsey, New Jersey. Settling in their new home along with his younger sister, Erin, and younger brother, Kevin, Michael’s family provided nothing short of a childhood of love and opportunity. With an ambitious personality from a very young age, Michael went out into the world to experience everything. Described by his father, Michael Senior, as “an ok athlete”, he gave his all playing soccer, basketball, Little League, and football. Out of all the sports he played, it was Pop Warner football that drove him the most. Playing the line, he grew to love the hitting and contact involved with this position. Being drawn to the physical demands of “playing the line”, it’s no wonder Michael was destined to become a firefighter.
Upon entering high school Michael continued playing sports, but wanted to expand his horizons and decided to give the marching band a try. For the remainder of his high school career it was the marching band that became his major extracurricular activity and he grew to become a highly valued member within the organization.
Throughout his years growing up there seemed to be something which piqued Michael’s interest even more than sports or the band. A sense of duty and public service was a calling to him. His father recalls a memory of Michael’s Cub Scout Troop attending an Army football game at West Point when he was young. Michael’s father, being one of the chaperones, recalled seeing all of the kids excited to be watching the game, but noticed that his son was more interested in the Military Police than the game. Another memory was when he brought Michael and his younger brother, Kevin, into New York City for the day to visit the ships in port for Fleet Week. Out of all of the ships, events, and attractions, Michael was most captivated by the weapons displayed on the flight deck. These subtle observations made it no surprise to Michael’s family where his life would lead.
Considering his grandfather was a “tin can sailor” in World War 2 and Michael Senior was an officer in the Air Force, Michael’s life was destined to be dedicated to public service and helping others. At a young age Michael joined the Ramsey Fire Department and Rescue Squad and it was there where his true sense of duty began. This sense of community service only continued to grow as he grew up and gained more experience.
In the year 2000, Michael’s profound sense of duty led to the selfless act of enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. Michael was dedicated to his country and to the Core. Climbing the ranks, he was promoted to Sergeant and in 2004, was deployed and completed a tour in Iraq. After returning stateside, he continued to serve until the time of his death. The Marine Corps instilled values in Michael that further prepared him for his coming years in the fire service.
With his unwavering sense of duty and love for the fire service, there was never any question as to what career path Michael would take. Like many of us, Michael went out into “the circuit” and took as many tests as possible. On March 3rd, 2003, all of Michael’s hopes and dreams came true when he was hired by the Stratford Fire Department (CT). Like all of us in the fire service this was one of the happiest days of his life; as we like to say “he hit the lottery”. Michael arrived in Stratford along with fellow brother’s Mike Tiberio and Mike Bruneau with passion and drive. After the traditional pre-orientation and preparation they set off to fulfill their dreams of becoming firefighters at the Connecticut Fire Academy (CFA). Class #26 of the CFA started on March 10th, 2003, and Michael excelled. He quickly proved to be a natural leader among his class and was selected as a “Squad Leader”. His work ethic was second-to-none and he earned the respect of his fellow classmates and instructors. On May 19th, 2003, Class #26 graduated; as one journey ended, the real one would begin the very next day. Upon returning to Stratford, Michael got right to work proving his worth not through talk, but by his actions. Like all probationary firefighters of the Stratford Fire Department, he spent his first year being mentored by his officers and senior firefighters at headquarters. Initially assigned to Engine One/Headquarters and later being transferred to Station 3/Engine 3, Michael seemed to be on the path to a long, successful career with the Stratford Fire Department.
Everyone has dreams, as vast and different as they are. Maybe to some it would seem that Michael had achieved all of his dreams, and though his gratitude to the the Stratford Fire Department was immeasurable, he had one enduring ambition. He dreamed of becoming a firefighter with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). After three strong years of service with the Stratford Fire Department, Michael “got the call” and one of his greatest dreams finally came true. On April 11th, 2006, Michael embarked on yet another journey when he started the fire academy of the FDNY. Considering his enormous success at the CFA it is no wonder that Michael naturally excelled throughout his training in New York. Due to his work ethic, skill, and leadership abilities, Michael was yet again selected to be a “Squad Leader”. In the end, Michael graduated in the top 10% of his class. With Michael’s love for the fire service and relentless drive to be the best firefighter possible, he requested to be assigned to one of the busiest engine companies in all of New York City, Engine #75. Considering his success and abilities demonstrated at the academy, his request was granted. Along with Ladder #33, Battalion #19 and his truck, Engine #75, Michael made the trip down to the Bronx to his new home, affectionately called “The Animal House”. He was truly living his dream. Described by his fellow FDNY brothers as “a damn good fireman”, Michael showed up to work every day with his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut. He didn’t boast about his previous accomplishments; he simply went to work, put his nose to the grindstone and wanted nothing more than to prove to his fellow brothers and sisters that he was the right man for the job. Through years of hard work, dedication, and determination it seemed as if nothing could stop him. He was working on one of the busiest engine companies in the city, was assigned to the “Animal House” and was looking forward to a full career, working hard to become the best firefighter possible. On August 27th, 2006, just six weeks after graduating the academy, Michael’s dreams were tragically cut short. However, through the hard work and determination of those who loved Michael, his legacy would live on forever.
When we tragically lose a member of our family the feelings which consume us are complicated and difficult to explain. Each person deals with loss differently, but when we lose a fellow brother or sister, it is a loss that remains forever. At the time of Michael’s death, one firefighter who was particularly impacted by his loss was his fellow brother, Mike Tiberio. They were hired together, attended the CFA together, and created a bond that lasted well after Michael moved to the FDNY. At the time of Michael’s death, then Stratford Fire Chief Ron Nattrass, assigned Tiberio as the department’s liaison to make accommodations with the press and FDNY communications. The funeral was that of a classic, dignified celebration of a firefighters life. Thousands of firefighters from around the country traveled in order to pay their respects to a recently departed brother. News outlets, papers and all forms of media were gracious with their reporting and in the end Michael was laid to rest in a truly beautiful manner.
But what happens when it’s all over? After the firefighter is laid to rest; after the media stops reporting; after the bagpipes and drums stop playing; what happens when it’s time to go back to our daily lives? For Mike Tiberio it simply wasn’t enough to administer a hero's funeral. He wanted to ensure his brother’s legacy would live on and that he would be celebrated each and every year. This is how the Michael C. Reilly “Hard Charger Award” was created.
After the funeral was done and everyone had gone back to their daily lives, Tiberio went to work. The grand funeral and ceremonies were a wonderful tribute, but he didn’t want it to stop there. He wanted to figure out a way to ensure Michael’s legacy. After much reflection and soul searching, Tiberio thought of a way to ensure Michael’s memory would live on forever. By creating an award to commemorate his life, he would go on to inspire generations of firefighters to come. Tiberio felt that by creating an award in Michael’s name at the very same institution where they faced their first true test together, the CFA, was the perfect place for this honor to be awarded. The CFA is regarded as a premier institution for teaching both skills and leadership and is trusted within our state by 169 towns and cities.
But how does one take a good intention and see it come to fruition? The answer: perseverance and inspiring others with your mission. After deciding on a plan, Tiberio first consulted the Reilly Family and the chief of the Stratford Fire Department, Ron Nattrass, who in turn gave their full blessing and support. Tiberio felt the best way to proceed with his endeavors was to go straight to the top by first contacting CFA State Fire Administrator, Jeff Morrissette, and Director, Adam Piskura, to present his idea.
At the time, the CFA was an institution which held 3 academy classes each year - spring, summer, and fall. With the exception of a select few departments in the state which offer their own academies, most all newly hired career firefighters (and some volunteers) attend one of the CFA Recruit Programs. It is these same recruit programs that provide the solid foundations for CT firefighters for the next 20-40 years of their careers. At the end of the program it is truly an honor to have successfully completed the program. A ceremony is held for each graduating class; the recruits, their chiefs, CFA administrative staff, CFA program coordinators, instructors, the Connecticut pipes and drums, the Connecticut honor guard, and family are all in attendance. Like most academies across the country, graduation of the academy is a truly special time which will certainly never be forgotten over the course of one’s life. As alluded to before, graduation day is the closing of one chapter and the being of the next.
With the overall prestige of the CFA and the pomp and circumstance associated with the recruit graduation, Tiberio felt this was the perfect venue to celebrate Michael by presenting one deserving graduate of each class with an award commemorating Michael’s life. After hearing the idea, State Fire Administrator Morrissette and Director Piskura felt a tremendous sense of honor that the CFA was being asked to take part in lighting this torch. However, there had never been a “special award” given in the history of the CFA program. All recruits, having successfully completed the same rigorous program, were each presented with a diploma from their respective Chiefs. The concern had nothing to do with the integrity or spirit of the award or Michael C. Reilly, but rather the possibility of setting a precedent. It was felt by some that the prominence of ceremonies can get “watered down” due to having too many awards within a presentation. There was concern that creating this award would open the flood gates and that other “potential awards” would be conferred when LODD’s were suffered. With the profound sense of honor exemplified in every recruit graduation, they wanted to avoid the significance of the event being lost in trophies and accolades.
Despite this concern, all parties agreed that creating an award honoring Michael’s life was a fantastic idea and wanted to ensure the idea came to actualization. The CFA Recruit Class is made up of many instructors who teach different classes throughout the program, there are lead instructors who oversee and monitor the class, including scheduling, grades, progress, and all aspects of the program. The lead instructors often have considerable tenure within the CFA and have a passionate commitment to the mission of the organization. To accept the lead of a recruit class takes an immense amount of commitment and a true sense of personal responsibility. This personal responsibility is to ensure that the recruit firefighters are taught to the highest standard possible and, in the end, are prepared for a successful career and the continued success of the fire service.
Four lead instructors at the CFA were pivotal in ensuring the award became a reality. Bill Deford, Ian Tenny, Brian Hurst, and Tony Leca, were crucial to creating the award. As stated before, besides perseverance, the other key aspect of creating a legacy award is to involve others and help them to see the true heart and meaning behind the mission. After seeing the potential of this award, these four leaders made it their motto to “make this happen” and never looked back. With the support of Morrissette, Piskura, Tiberio and now these four dedicated men, the award was destined to happen. From that point on it wasn’t a question of if the award would be presented, but rather what the criteria for the award would be. What was going to be the true spirit of the award?
Discussions and planning of the award took off like wildfire. They asked themselves questions: Who was Michael Reilly? At what did he excel? What inspired him and drove him to succeed? What kind of firefighter was he? What type of candidate should receive the award? Should the recruits know about the award before the graduation ceremony? Who would be part of the presentation? What would the award look like? These men wanted to ensure that the true spirit of the award was reflected and they succeeded in creating an award that did both Michael and his family proud. They entrusted Ed Vacovitch, owner of Crown Trophy of Brookfield/Danbury FD Chief (Retired), with the charge of designing and making of the award worthy of its significance.
On December 18th 2006, after years of unwavering dedication, the first ever Michael C. Reilly (“Hard Charger Award”) was presented to the Connecticut Fire Academy Recruit Class #37. It was a true honor to be a member of the first class to receive the award. No one was aware of the award or its inaugural presentation. All DeFord, Hurst, Leca, and Tenney kept saying was “Man, you guys are in for a huge surprise” and “You have no clue how fortunate you are for being in this recruit class”. Were they ever right! On our graduation day the very first Michael C. Reilly (“Hard Charger Award”) was presented to Milford Fire Department recruit Ryan C. Laguardia; on hand for the presentation was the entire Reilly family. Besides forming a strong bond within our academy class, to this day, Ryan continues to be my best friend within the fire service, truly a fireman’s firefighter. I’m fairly certain when I say that out of all 22 recruits from class #37 not one of us thought it should have gone to anyone different. Ryan proved to be a tremendous leader, a friend to all, a mentor, and quite frankly, one hell of a firefighter. This is what the men charged with creating the award wanted, someone to receive the award who not only emulated Michaels skills as a firefighter, but possessed his tremendous qualities of being a good person.
Since December 18th 2006 the Michael C. Reilly (“Hard Charger Award”) has been presented to one deserving recruit from each and every graduating class. When an award like this is created no one knows what it’s future will hold. Will it stay the same, will it grow, or will it fade away? Last year the award marked it’s ten year anniversary with the presentation to Recruit Class #58. Director of Training, Bill Higgins, wanted to ensure the anniversary was celebrated appropriately. Higgins, along with Coordinator Eric Munsell, convened a meeting with Hurst and Tiberio. In the end, Higgins contacted all departments throughout the state, spoke to each department Chief and asked for all past recipients of the award to attend the 10 year anniversary. Mr. Reilly, as he has for every recruit class, was also present. The ten year anniversary of the award was presented by Tiberio to recruit Thomas L. Sarno of the Milford Fire Department. In marking the ten year anniversary, brothers from Michael’s Engine #75 FDNY attended the ceremony including their boss, Captain Chris Coppola, who made moving remarks during the presentation. I think it’s safe to say that the impact of this award has created an
Capt. Chris Coppola & Mr. Reilly
indelible footprint on the Fire Service in Connecticut. It’s incredible how the award has advanced the general welfare of the program. It has infused a strong, yet productive sense of competition amongst candidates. It continuously pushes recruits to become the best versions of themselves. As recruits reach their breaking points, giving it their all day in and day out, hopes of receiving this award is what continues to push many forward. Throughout the program, the cadets are frequently reminded that this is not an award you win, but an award that is earned. Being selected as a recipient is not only an honor but an enormous responsibility. Once awarded the “Hard Charger”, it is one’s duty to go back to his/her respective department and continue that same hard work and determination. Fellow brothers/sisters are looking at you to rise to the level the award carries with it. Since the first time it was presented in 2006 to today there have been 24 recipients of the award. Out of all of the great characteristics Michael embodied the most simple, yet at the same time most telling, was the fact that he was simply a guy who loved being a firefighter. Every ounce of his body was dedicated to being the best firefighter possible. At the end of the day, no matter how simple, that’s how most of us want to be thought of, simply as a good firefighter. With the hard work of a select few exceptional individual’s, the Michael C. Reilly (“Hard Charger Award”) was born. They didn’t create his legacy. Prior to his death, Michael had already done that. But by having a true sense of duty and honor, they were able to create a commemoration which will continue to honor and pay tribute to the life of Michael C. Reilly forever.
Adam J. Hansen
Milford Fire Department
Lieutenant: Engine Co. #7