2022 Valor Awards: Lifesaving Awards

Save my wife… please

Montgomery Township Local 355 member Joe Samec thought this might be the call he was expecting from his wife, Dr. Kristen Sikorski. He hoped she was on her way home to celebrate their 10-year-old daughter’s birthday on Sept. 1, 2021.

Rains from Hurricane Ida had been raging all around Somerset County that day. And when Samec answered the call, he heard it all happen.

“She called me up on the phone, and then when we were talking, she’s like, ‘Oh my God, my car’s floating away. Oh my God,’” recounted Samec, who recently retired after 20 years on the job. “Well, I couldn’t hear her anymore on the phone because I had my kids at home. So I told them, ‘Let’s go rescue Mommy.’”

Kristen was on her way home from her office in Flemington. Samec discovered she was on Mountainview Avenue in Hillsborough Township, and he figured he could make it to the location in 30 minutes, 45 at most.

When he arrived, he met Hillsborough Township Officer Richard Tichenor, who had been dispatched to the call. Samec told him he was on the job and recalled Tichenor confirming,

“There’s a woman in the river.”

“I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s probably my wife. Let’s go,’” Samec added. “Whether it was or not, we were getting this done. I didn’t know where she exactly was, but yes, I knew she was in that area.”

Tichenor informed him that Kristen was in the woods about 80 yards off the road. She was on the roof of the vehicle.

“We saw the car and saw her on the roof with her cell phone,” Samec continued. “I grabbed the other end of a rope and went in.”

Due to the fast current and rising water, Samec was unable to reach the vehicle. The water had risen over his head.

Using himself as an anchor, Tichenor tied the other end of the rope around his body. There wasn’t enough rope for Samec to reach the vehicle, so Tichenor also entered the water. That enabled Samec to reach his wife.

When they reached the car, the officers told her to jump, Samec explained. “And I caught her.”
Samec tied the rope to his wife, and Tichenor pulled the two to safety. Though Samec doesn’t remember the exact details about what happened when they made it out, he does confirm that he and Kristen shared the best hug they had since they were married 14 years ago.

Samec served as a dispatcher in Montgomery for six years, and he had received an award from the 200 Club for his work in taking a 911 call. But being honored at the Valor Awards, of course, presented another level of significance for Samec.

“This one means the most because it’s family,” he noted. “But whether it was her or not, we were going to get it done. I like helping people, and that’s what I loved about the job. Just doing what we can do to help somebody.”

Samec didn’t expect any recognition for saving his wife. Even at home. Certainly, he would be entitled to being recused in the days after the rescue when Kristen asked him to do something
like take out the garbage.

“Actually, I have a 13-year-old son for that,” Samec quipped. “But if she asks, I just say, ‘Yes, dear.”

Saving a brother

Three officers from the Essex County Sheriff’s office had one goal on Jan. 4: to save one of their own.

Officers Edward O’Mara and Christopher Smith were in pursuit of a suspect in a vehicle that had struck another officer on that day. The chase ended in a crash.

The horrific collision led to the radio car that O’Mara and Smith were in catching fire. Officers Lee Sutherlin and Nicholas Mattia quickly arrived at the crash site.

O’Mara had sustained multiple injuries to both of his legs as well as his right hand. He was unable
to exit the vehicle under his own power.

Sutherlin and Mattia, who were working patrol, reacted immediately and were able to pry the car door open. The officers successfully removed O’Mara and got him into the back of Sutherlin’s squad car. They then transported him to a nearby hospital.

“I think that any officer would’ve done what we did,” Sutherlin stated. “I would do anything for my brothers. Brothers and sisters, anything for them.”

When hearing about the crash, Sutherlin and Mattia made it to the location as fast as possible.

Sutherlin didn’t think twice about the decision to take O’Mara to the hospital himself. Sutherlin noted how his instincts are a credit to his father, who did 27 years in the Sheriff’s Office. He was a rangemaster for the Essex County Police Academy and retired as a sergeant.

Being part of the PBA Valor Awards allowed Sutherlin to celebrate the recognition for NJ law enforcement officers on this night. And for him, being honored supplements the great reward of being able to respond like the Essex County Sheriff’s Officers did on Jan. 4.

“I think that there needs to be more about how much these guys do on a day-to-day basis,” Sutherlin stated. “I was blown away hearing these stories of my brothers and sisters at the awards. There’s no greater gift in the world than being able to get somebody back to their family.”

Above and beyond the call of duty

On a relaxing Aug. 21 afternoon, State Correctional Police Officer Corey Forbes kicked back in his 30-foot Sailfish while enjoying the bright sky on his day off. Little did he know that within a few minutes, Barnegat Bay would be clouded with black smoke.

About half a mile away, Officer Forbes noticed smoke coming from a boat’s engine cover. As he
approached the vessel, the engine burst into flames. Forbes saw people jumping in the water.

Wasting no time, Forbes hit the throttle to head toward where people were scattered in water with no lifejackets. He maneuvered to get closed to two people and a dog.

“They were panicked,” Forbes recalled. “The dog actually came right to me, and I pulled him in. After that, I pulled the two individuals out of the water.”

He safely transferred the dog — a Weimaraner hunter — and the two people to an NJ State Police boat that responded after him. Another boat came up to rescue the other passengers.

Officer Forbes, who felt honored to receive the lifesaving award from the New Jersey State PBA, explained how the response was a matter of reacting as quickly as possible.

“I just saw fire and responded,” Forbes commented. “I think it’s more of a character thing for some people. I like my job and I like what I do. I like serving the community and the public. It’s
something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Dunellen Local 146

On Saturday, Sept. 3, Officer Dudley was dispatched to a structure fire. Upon arrival, he found the house had smoke billowing from all the windows.

Officer Dudley entered the smoke-filled residence and evacuated two dogs. He then re-entered the inferno in search of other signs of life. In a rear bedroom that was fully engulfed in flames, he found a 77-year-old man who was reluctant to leave the house.

After pleading with the gentleman to leave, Dudley physically removed the man from the house and got him to safety. Both the man and Dudley were transported to the hospital, treated for smoke inhalation and released.

Ridgefield Park Local 86

On Saturday, July 2, at approximately 1:50 a.m., Ridgefield Park officers were dispatched to a car fire. Sergeant Triano arrived at the scene and learned that the driver was trapped and unable to exit the vehicle.

Triano grabbed a Halligan tool as Officers D’Alto and D’Elia arrived. The three tried to remove the victim from the driver’s side, but the fire was too intense. They then went to the passenger side, pried the door open and brought him to safety.

Ewing Local 111

On Sept. 1, 2021, during Hurricane Ida, Officer Justin Quinlan observed a woman trying desperately to avoid being swept away by the rapidly moving floodwaters. Quinlan entered the water and made his way to the exhausted woman.

He grabbed her and held onto a guardrail to avoid being washed away. After approximately 20 minutes, a swift-water rescue team brought them to safety.

Franklin Township Local 154

On Sept. 1, 2021, during Hurricane Ida, Officer Jurik was dispatched to a motorist stranded in floodwaters. Jurik found the victim, who had been swept off the road into the tree line.

Detective Hernandez arrived at the scene, and the two entered the water in an attempt to reach the man. The officers had to hold on to the submerged guardrail to avoid being pulled under by the swift current. They held the victim for approximately 30 minutes until a rescue boat could bring them all to safety.

Hopewell Township Local 342

On Jan. 13, Officer Peterson was dispatched to Rosedale Park on a call of a person who had fallen through the ice. Upon arrival, he observed a woman approximately 25 yards from shore, struggling to keep her head above water.

Peterson broke through the ice, waded into the frigid water and, using a rescue rope, pulled the woman to shore. The woman was transported and treated for hypothermia.

New Providence Local 132

On Sept. 1, 2021, during Hurricane Ida, Officers Bruder and Carlino, along with Detective Gurriero, were dispatched at approximately 9:15 p.m. to a vehicle stranded in fast-moving floodwaters. Upon arrival, they found the vehicle was occupied by four individuals.

The officers entered the cold, dark, swift water and saved two adults and two juveniles from being swept away into the Passaic River.

Sussex County Local 138

On Jan. 16, Stanhope Officer Robert Popleka was dispatched to Lake Musconetcong to assist Netcong Police with an individual who had fallen through the ice. When Popleka arrived at the scene, he went out onto the ice with a throw bag to assist the Netcong officer.

The ice started to crack under his feet, so Popleka lay down to redistribute his weight. At this time, a female ice skater appeared and fell through the ice in front of him. Popleka threw the rope to the distressed female and pulled her to shore, where he rendered aid until EMS arrived.