MONTCLAIR, NJ - A record number of 22 members of the Montclair Fire Department will receive Valor Awards during an awards ceremony on May 4. "This is the largest recognition ever given to a group of firefighters in Essex County", Kevin Lynch of the Essex County Sheriff's Office announced.

During the 51st Annual Valor Awards luncheon hosted by the 200 Club of Essex County, police officers and firefighters from around Essex County will be recognized for bravery, dedication to duty, courageous vigilance and selflessness. The event will take place at 11:30am at Nanina's in the Park.

The 22 Montclair firefighters being honored responded to a unique distress call on December 3, 2016, where every minute of this rescue attempt counted. Even off-duty firefighters got involved to assist in this rescue attempt.

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At approximately 1:30PM, the Montclair Fire Department was dispatched to an address on 26 Linden Avenue for a man trapped inside an oil tank in the ground. A company had been attempting to remove an oil tank, and one of the workers became trapped inside when dirt and mud collapsed around him.

Montclair Battalion Chief Murray was the first on the scene to assess the situation and observed a partially unearthed metal 330 gallon empty fuel oil tank in the front yard of a residence. After finding a male victim pinned inside the tank, sitting upright, with a flap of steel, mud and dirt crushing down on him, firefighters rushed into action and called for back up.

The oil tank was located in the front yard next to a retaining wall for the driveway of the single family detached home, which posed a significant challenge for responders on the scene.

Since it had rained several inches the night before, mud and dirt had collapsed around the tank while the victim was cutting it with a metal circular saw. This cut area also created a compromised section of the metal side wall because it then folded inward when the soil collapsed, thus trapping the victim inside the tank.

Seeing this and realizing that they only had a short time to safely rescue the victim, Murray called for additional resources, and a special operations trailer with specialized equipment. Hearing the call, off-duty personnel who were nearby hosting an annual children's Christmas party, assisted with the rescue.

Montclair Fire Chief John Herrmann arrived, as did Deputy Essex County Fire Coordinator Millburn Battalion Chief James Boyle.  Chief Boyle has extensive training in various rescue disciplines.

Lt. Sweeney was assigned as Operations Officer and Capt. Chris Russo assumed command as the Safety Officer as rescue efforts began.

"Firefighters stabilized the dirt around the hole, and used ground ladders to bridge the hole. They were able to place ventilation lubes into the tank to supply fresh air, and monitor the atmosphere due to the accumulated fumes from the gas-powered saw," fire officials announced in a release. 

Five feet below the earth, the victim was trapped in dirt, mud and the metal tank up to his neck and expressed that he could no longer feel his legs.

At one point, the victim lost consciousness due to the weight of the tank and trench wall on his chest.

"Airbags and cribbing were used inside the tank to relieve some of the pressure, while a plan was developed to remove the victim," according to the release. A paramedic was then able to get to the victim to apply oxygen.

Firefighters soon began to remove some of the dirt, and pry back the metal tank to free the victim and then used an aerial ladder as a lifting point over the hole to pull him out, where he was treated for his injuries by EMS crews. It took one hour and 22 minutes to rescue and free the victim, who was then taken to University Hospital.

En route to the hospital, the ambulance was involved in a motor vehicle accident in East Orange. It was reported that the victim sustained no additional injuries in this motor vehicle accident.

The Group Meritorious Service Award will be given to the following:

Lt. Anthony Acocella, F/F Scott Bowman, F/F Sebastian Covello, Probationary F/F Adam Duchinsky, F/F Keith Ferenz, F/F John Fierro, Lt. John Grapes F/F Chris Herrmann, Fire Chief John Herrmann, Lt. Dave Hill, F/F Dave Jones, F/F Artie Karydes, F/F CJ Miller, Lt. Bill Morrison, Battalion Chief Greg Murray, F/F Kevin Palek, F/F Kurt Reinhardt, F/F Bill Roth, Captain Chris Russo, Lt. Kevin Sweeney, F/F Jeffrey Testa, and F/F Levar Washington.

Established in 1966, the 200 Club of Essex County has raised nearly $2 million to support the spouses of fallen officers and fund scholarships for their children.

For more information, call 973-694-4982.