UNION COUNTY – Rahway Police Officer Luis Ataca’s decision to stop to get a cup of coffee before his shift ended led to a lifesaving rescue at a Paterson Street house fire, before he, too, had to be rescued and hospitalized for six months.
But Ataca, a nine-year veteran of the Rahway Police Department, said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.
On Friday, Ataca, Rahway Fire Capt. Theodore Padavano and Firefighter Andrew Shumway, both 19-year veterans, will receive 2017 Valor Awards from the 200 Club of Union County during their annual award luncheon at Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Plains.
It’s the first time for all three to receive the award, which recognizes actions above and beyond the call of duty. They will be joined at the ceremony by family members and Rahway Police Chief John Rodger and Rahway Fire Chief William Young.
“I’m honored,” Padavano said.
“We did our job,” said Shumway. “He (Ataca) risked a lot to save a lot. You are really gambling.”
“But looking at his (Ataca’s body camera) video, I would have done the same thing,” said Shumway referring to the faint white smoke seen when Ataca entered the home.
Ataca, who is also a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2004 and lost four of his fellow soldiers, said he doesn’t believe he deserves the award.
“Because I was doing my job. If I see something like that, I’m going back to the fire. I would do it again,” he said. “I was born and raised in Peru and it’s hard to live there. Here, the U.S. gave a lot of opportunities as a person so this was a little payback to the U.S., and to the community.”
Ataca, who previously received a valor award from The National Liberty Museum for the house fire rescue, said he knows the feeling of someone dying and you can’t do anything to help them.
“It’s hard,” he said.
Also being honored with valor awards are Summit Police Officer John Brunetto, who, while off duty and on vacation last September, helped rescue two people caught in rip currents at the Jersey Shore; Elizabeth Police Detective Darrin Williamson, who, while off duty and alone, confronted three armed suspects outside a restaurant; and Clark Police Capt. Patrick Grady for drawing an armed suspect away from potential victims and toward himself before shooting the suspect in the stomach.
Also receiving valor awards are Linden Police Officers Angel Padilla, Pete Hammer, Mark Kahana and David Guzman, who were involved in a gun battle last September with New Jersey and New York terror bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahimi.
The Linden officers will not be able to attend the luncheon because they, along with Linden Officer Daniel Diaz, will be honored in Washington by the National Association of Police Organizations Inc.at the annual TOP COPS Awards, which pays tribute to law-enforcement officers across the country for actions above and beyond the call of duty.
Ataca was about to head home around 4 a.m. March 26, 2016 when he spotted the fire at 1855 Paterson St., a dead-end street.
“I was going to Dunkin’ Donuts to get coffee and saw the fire. I drove my patrol car there and I notified headquarters the house was on fire. I saw a lady coming out. I think it was a resident from the second floor. She told me her (downstairs) neighbor was a disabled blind lady and I went to the house.”
Ataca said he saw fire coming from the side of the house but didn’t see smoke. The wind was fanning flames to the house next door at 1849 Paterson St., where everyone was able to safely evacuate.
He went inside the burning house and searched until he found the blind lady in the last room. She held tightly to his hand.
“I grabbed her and that’s it, I don’t remember anything else,” he said, adding that there was an explosion or a door slammed behind him and he collapsed.
Padavano and Shumway arrived shortly afterward.
“We came around back and two officers came out of the smoke from trying to find him,” Padavano said.
“Everything I saw was on the video,” said Ataca, referring to the police body camera he activated upon entering the home. He said video shows him coughing from the smoke and the woman coughing, too, as her voice grows faint.
Padavano said Ataca’s video showed that the interior looked clear as he approached the home.
“You can see the back of the house,” Shumway said
But by the time Ataca went from the front to the back of the house, the smoke had increased, Padavano said.
Shumway said the fire department was dispatched to a working structure fire with people possibly trapped.
“We knew going in we had multiple victims,” Shumway said. “And someone somewhere along the way said back bedroom and we went to the back of the building and right in and found Ataca and the woman in the back bedroom.”
“When we got there there was nothing but floor-to-ceiling black smoke,” said Padavano, adding the front living room was burning preventing entry. “There was a lot of fire.”
In the hallway, Padavano spotted Ataca’s body-worn camera, which had been knocked off, so he knew he must be nearby.
“I reached forward and grabbed the lady’s hand,” Padavano said. ”One at a time, we got them out.”
“It went quick. We were in and out,” Shumway said.
The house was heavily damaged by the fire and is undergoing renovation. The cause of the fire is believed to be electrical. The house had no working smoke detectors. The neighboring house needed new siding.
Ataca, who received CPR at the scene, spent a month in the Intensive Care Burn Unit at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston and five more months recovering. The lady, who was in her late 80s or early 90s, also was transported to Saint Barnabas but later died.
Ataca, who returned to work in October six months after the fire, said he still has some trouble breathing and is on light duty in the police department.
Staff Writer Suzanne Russell: 732-565-7335; [email protected]
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