Fire tops the list of what Thomas Delgado fears most. It’s also right up there for Joe Page.
But that didn’t keep the Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputies from risking their lives last year to pull a man out of a burning pickup.
Wednesday, both men were honored with Carnegie medals for heroism.
They were among 18 people across the United States and Canada to be selected as the latest recipients of the Carnegie Hero award, which was established more than a century ago by industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
“I was hesitant at first,” Delgado said Wednesday of approaching the burning truck. “But it was just one of those things where you think, `Oh my, God!’ You just do it.”
Page said, “It was just reaction. Talking afterward, we were both scared we’d have to watch someone burn.”
Shortly after 7 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2011, in the 3700 block of South Broadway, Delgado was on patrol when he spotted the rear of a maroon pickup on fire after it had crashed into a guardrail on the south side of a bridge.
Authorities would later learn that the driver, David D. Ong, who was 65 at the time, had suffered a medical condition.
“I automatically assumed the person was going to get out of the truck,” Delgado said in an interview the day after the rescue.
Instead, Ong clutched the steering wheel, revving the engine as he shifted between drive and reverse. A rear tire, flat and spinning, sent showers of sparks that apparently set the truck on fire.
Page arrived at the scene about a minute after Delgado.
“It was so hot,” Page said later. “It was painful just to get up close.”
The driver’s-side door was smashed and couldn’t be opened. Ong would have to be pulled through the window.
Delgado fought through the heat of the encroaching fire to try to unbuckle Ong’s seat belt, but the dazed man reached down to stop him.
Page used a small fire extinguisher to try to douse the flames around the gas tank. That slowed the fire down some, but the extinguisher quickly emptied.
The fire grew worse, and a couple of loud pops came from underneath the truck. Both deputies jumped back, thinking the gas tank was going to explode.
Page said later he had three thoughts: “We have to save him, he’s going to die or all three of us are going to die.”
Without saying a word to each other, Delgado and Page rushed the truck at the same time, fighting through the heat and smoke.
Delgado used a knife to cut the seat belt. Page grabbed Ong’s right arm and pulled him off the steering wheel and toward the window. Delgado grabbed the other arm, and together they yanked him through the window.
As they dragged Ong across Broadway to safety, the fire engulfed the pickup’s cab. Ong sustained minor burns and smoke inhalation. Delgado and Page were treated for smoke inhalation.
The whole episode lasted less than two minutes. It seemed much, much longer.
“I’ve been in some hairy situations,” Page recalled more than a year later, “but that was the hairiest.”
Delgado, a 15-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, now works in the department’s offender registration unit. Page, who has been a Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy nearly six years after serving eight years in Reno County, now works patrol for community policing.
Ong hadn’t been in contact the deputies since they saved his life, and could not be reached by the Eagle on Wednesday. About six months ago Page went by Ong’s home in Peck to see how he was doing. No one was home, so Page left his card.
He later called Page.
“He was just really thankful,” Page said. “It was a brief conversation. He didn’t remember what happened very well.”
Both deputies later received numerous awards, both locally and at the state level, for their heroism. They were surprised to get the prestigious national honor from the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
“A lot of others are more worthy,” Delgado said.
“I’m shocked,” Page said. “It’s kind of humbling.”
Delgado and Page bring to 81 the number of Carnegie awards made in 2012. New recipients are announced four times each year. Wednesday’s honorees are from 11 states and Canada. Four of them died while carrying out their heroic acts.
Carnegie medalists or their heirs receive financial grants approved by the commission. More than $34.6 million has been awarded to 9,576 honorees since the fund’s inception 108 years ago.
After a massive coal-mine explosion on Jan. 25, 1904, in Harwick, Pa., Carnegie was prompted to recognize acts of heroism by setting up a fund. Two of the 181 people who died in the explosion lost their lives while trying to rescue others, according to the commission’s website.
Delgado and Page are the 99th and 100th Kansans to be honored, who will receive their awards by mail in early 2013.
Five Kansans were honored for heroic acts in 2010, including three men – Troy A. Reinert, Jay S. Huscher and Orville D. Clinton – who joined together to rescue a driver and passenger from a burning car after an accident near Salina.
Kansans’ history with the honor dates almost as far back as the award itself. Five Kansans received the medal as the result of their actions in 1906, including three young men who were involved in a rescue on Christmas Day after someone broke through the ice on a lake near Olathe. Two of the three to receive the medal died in the process.
Another heroic effort in Kansas resulted in the Carnegie medal being presented in September to an Oklahoma teenager. Summer White of Edmond was seriously injured in June 2011 when she pulled a Texas woman out of the middle of the road on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita following a late-night accident.
A truck hit a car, knocking it into White, who sustained multiple broken bones. The Texas woman, 32, later died.