2022 Valor Awards: Gold Medals of Valor

River Runs Deep

The Passaic River runs approximately 80 miles long and 240 miles deep. But there is no bond that runs deeper than the bond between those responding to a desperate situation.

Such was the case on Aug. 7, 2021, when Nutley Officers Steven Rogers and Christopher Bassani were called to a scene where a driver had gone over a retaining wall and into the Passaic River.

Before the two arrived at the scene, a good Samaritan who was on his way to a party with his wife and daughter noticed the car going into
the water. When William Dinnerstein found out the driver was still inside, he immediately emptied his pockets and dove in.

Dinnerstein was joined by another civilian, Ivan Viana. Viana let Rogers and Bassani know there was someone trapped in the car when they arrived.

When the officers went to help the driver, he began resisting the help, and a battle ensued. That led Dinnerstein and Nutley Sergeant Christopher D’Alessio to try to save all the men involved. Other agencies then responded to the incident and threw out a rescue rope, pulling Rogers and the others to safety.

The way the rescue went down left quite the impact on those involved.

“All in all, everybody worked together, and everyone’s alive,” Rogers described. “And during a time where there is so much tension with police in the community, it was Caucasian police officers and Hispanic civilians rescuing an African American. So we all came together, because we’re all human beings, to bring this person to safety.”

The officers insist the rescue wouldn’t have been possible had Viana and Dinnerstein not intervened.

“I just, I don’t think any of us would be here today if it wasn’t for them,” Bassani recalled. “It’s very honorable that they were there before we were even there.”

To Dinnerstein, it was just a matter of timing.

“I’m just glad I was in the right place,” he said. “I think the people should be commended more for things they do, rather than what I did.”

They all knew going into the river was what needed to be done.

“I became a police officer to defend those who can’t defend themselves and be there for someone who needs to be saved,” Rogers commented. “So it was like an immediate instinctual reaction.”

When they went into the water that day, they had no way of knowing they would be honored in this way. But they all seemed to know what the honor meant.

“By honoring the police officers, you honor their families,” he added. “Mothers leave their husbands and their children, fathers leave their wives. And without honoring the police officer, you are forgetting the family that’s left behind. And that’s why it’s so important.”

Assisting the Heroes 

It seemed like a typical day of work for Gene Blemmings on April 28, 2022, as he stood on a barge in the middle of the Delaware River with two of his coworkers, Michael Natrin and Status Tiniakos. Until a car came speeding toward the river.

In an instant, the car jumped the metal fence surrounding Freedom Pier and plunged into the water. The vehicle submerged, with its wheels facing upward.

Blemmings, Natrin and Tiniakos jumped into a nearby boat to provide aid to the driver, who was alone in the vehicle. By the time they reached the car, Gloucester City PD Sergeant Carlos Depoder and Officers Sean Garland and John Bryszewski arrived on scene. They
quickly removed their gear and lowered themselves down a 10-foot embankment into the frigid water.

When the officers finally reached the driver, they pulled her free. Placing her on a nearby log floating in the water, the officers started CPR. Just then, Blemmings’ boat reached the officers to provide further assistance

Blemmings tried to downplay the role these heroic civilians played in the rescue by noting that they were just in the right place at the right time.

“It was just natural instinct,” Blemmings recalled. “All three of us just hopped in the boat, and we got help. The officers are the heroes. We were just there to assist them.”

As the rescuers quickly persisted toward a floating dock where an ambulance was waiting, the officers continued rendering first aid. When they arrived at the dock, the ambulance transported the driver to the hospital.

“Based on the job, you do what you have to do to save somebody,” Depoder commented. “You said you would do that during the course of your career. You’re trained for it. So it’s kind of something that just happens, and you hope that everything works out. And it ended up working out in this case.”

Reflecting on the incident, Depoder added that he believed any officer in that situation would have taken the same actions.

“It feels good to be recognized, but I mean, I think we just did our job,” Depoder added. “I’m happy that we got to come here [to the Valor Awards], and it is great to be appreciated.”

Gold Mettle

It doesn’t take more than a few words to understand the pride felt by West New York Local 361 Vice President Jorge Salgado after four West New York Police officers received the Gold Medal of Valor.

“To see them recognized at a state level — being able to get this award for what they did — it was awesome,” Salgado said.

In August, Detectives Wendell Oms, Samuel Molina and Daniel Hernandez, along with Officer Ruben Funes, faced down a man who opened fire on them as they responded to a domestic disturbance. As Hernandez spoke to a female on the scene, Molina entered the home, where he encountered a man with a handgun who shot and wounded him.

Hernandez returned fire to give cover to Molina as he retreated. Oms and Funes then arrived on scene. The man attempted to leave the home through a rear door and ambush the officers, but Oms was not surprised. An ensuing gunfight resulted in the man being fatally wounded.

Salgado praised the four officers for their handling of the incident, which he contended saved numerous lives, as the situation could have “gone south” without their quick actions. Although Molina was injured, Salgado shared that the award-winning officers were pleased with how the situation unfolded and “ecstatic” to be honored.

“They got to the scene, and the way they handled the whole thing was just amazing. They’re happy that it turned out the way it did in the sense that none of us got extremely hurt,” Salgado shared. “To be able to do that at the most extreme level, it’s an opportunity that not everybody gets to see and understand. They’re real heroes of the department.”

The results are proof of what West New York does to emphasize preparation and teamwork so that its officers are ready for what can happen on the streets, according to Salgado.

“It’s really the training that we received from the beginning. We stay together, we work together. When something hits the fan like [this incident] … it’s what they train to do all the time,” Salgado explained, adding that the three detectives are part of a specialized unit, which helped create a strong bond among them. “The fact they were able to maneuver, talk to each other and get this figured out was amazing.”

Salgado also expressed appreciation to the New Jersey State PBA for giving everyone a glimpse of the great work being done by law enforcement across the state.

“Being able to come together from the whole state and just appreciate what they do and see what they do is incredible,” Salgado said.

The Duty of Off Duty

Working in law enforcement means being on duty even when you’re not technically on duty. Officers know that when trouble strikes, you have to respond to the situation, no matter the severity.

West Orange Local 25 member Christopher Hernandez did. On Dec. 27, 2021, Hernandez was in line at a local convenience store when he observed a fight between two other customers. The situation quickly escalated into one of them pulling out a gun.

“I knew something was up, and that’s when I saw him point what appeared to be a gun at the other person,” Hernandez explained. “I stepped in, and it escalated to what it was.”

Hernandez, who was off duty at the time, knew he had to intervene after observing the suspect for just a few seconds.

“Just through his mannerisms, the way he was talking and very aggressive, and he was kind of pushing [the other customer] against the shelving units,” he added.

Hernandez, who was unarmed, said he was much smaller than the gunman. He began to fight with the suspect in hopes of gaining control of the weapon. The gun went off, just grazing his ear. The suspect then ran out of the store and was eventually arrested.

Hernandez said it was a close call that day and that he’s just lucky to be alive. So when the Valor Awards came around, he described it as a bittersweet feeling to receive a gold medal.

“On one hand, you have officers that do great things all the time that don’t get recognized,” he added. “For me, I’m getting recognized for something I did off duty.”

Whether you’re off duty or on the job, any officer knows that it’s nice to be thanked for the risks you take on the daily. And the beauty of the Valor Awards is the opportunity to celebrate law enforcement’s good work.

“For the amount that we have to deal with, we don’t get recognized enough for the things that we do on a day-to-day basis,” he commented. “It’s nice to have days like this once or twice a year, just to congratulate the officers that do something above and beyond what they normally are doing on a day-to-day basis.”