By DYLAN BROWN and JOE UNGARO • STAFF WRITERS • November 7, 2009
They entered through a second story window knowing a woman was inside the small bedroom but unable to see her because thick, black smoke filled the room.
"They called us out for a house fire with someone possibly trapped," said Rockaway Firefighter David Tsolakis. "When we got there, someone told us that someone was trapped."
Tsolakis along with fellow firefighters Mike Heath, Sara Matthews and Danny Jenkins, were honored at the St. Barnabas Burn Foundation's 22nd Annual Valor Awards last week for their actions during the fire that occurred Oct. 20, 2008 on Meriden Road.
"Mike Heath broke the window open and Sara Matthews and I climbed in," Tsolakis said. "We searched the room -- the door was closed, but there was thick, black smoke."
Matthews found the 92-year-old woman, who had Alzheimer's disease, and discovered straps were holding her down, according to Joe Mason, director of fire and emergency medical services for the township.
"She had a medical harness -- it goes across your chest to restrain you so you don't fall out of bed -- we didn't know about that when we went in," Tsolakis said.
The straps didn't faze Matthews, who was working blind because of the smoke and found them by feeling around with her hands.
"After you've done this for a while, you're not surprised by what people have in their houses," Matthews said.
The woman, later identified as Victoria Pisarcik, helped herself by hiding under the covers, which helped keep too much smoke from getting into her lungs, Tsolakis said.
"Sara and I cut the strap holding her down and we picked her up," Tsolakis said.
Because of the smoke and fire in the home, taking her down the stairs was not an option so the two firefighters had to get her to the window where Heath and Jenkins were waiting on ladders. Getting to the window while carrying the woman through the smokey room was difficult.
"When they broke the window to get in, it knocked a bunch of books onto the floor," Tsolakis said. "It was a small bedroom to begin with, and it was tough to walk around.
"Mike Heath and Danny Jenkins were at the window, so we passed her out to them and they put on a bag valve, which goes over the mouth and you squeeze it to force air into the lungs," Tsolakis said.
The firefighters felt good that Pisarcik's nose and face were covered in black soot, indicating she was breathing, Matthews said.
"You could tell she was a fighter from the way she was still breathing. We were very excited about that because we didn't think anyone would be breathing given the conditions at the time."
Pisarcik was taken down the ladder, and Tsolakis and Matthews also got out of the building before Pisarcik was taken by ambulance to a waiting helicopter, which took her to the Burn Center at St. Barnabas for treatment. Pisarcik spent two weeks
in the hospital being treated for smoke inhalation before being released. She has since passed away from causes unrelated to the fire.
The four Rockaway Township firefighters received a Team Effort award from the St. Barnabas Burn Foundation from their efforts, which have previously been recognized by the township council and the 200 Club.
"It was a heroic effort by these four firefighters," said Bob Morris, fire department chief. "They were putting their own lives at risk, entering the burning building to rescue the lady."
Pisarcik's 56-year-old granddaughter, Victoria Love, was indicted earlier this year on charges that accuse her of using gasoline to deliberately start the fire.
Love, who suffered serious burns herself, was found by emergency workers standing outside the burning home and allegedly proclaimed that she started a fire with gasoline because "I'm nuts."
Love's defense attorney, James Porfido, said the woman currently is free on $100,000 bail and living with her mother. After her arrest, she initially was sent to a psychiatric hospital, then to the Morris County jail, after which she posted bail. She later spent a few more months in a psychiatric facility but is out now. The charges are still pending and she has a court hearing scheduled for Tuesday.