Protect & Serve: Safety officers cited for heroism |

Protect & Serve: Safety officers cited for heroism

(Editor’s note: The following article is the ninth installment in a series of profiles of local law and fire protection agencies that will publish each week through Feb. 27, when the Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Council hosts its annual Red Light Ball at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. That event raised more than $20,000 for local agencies last year.)

By Kyle Magin

Staff Writer

As flames leaped through the roof and thick, black smoke billowed out of a Grass Valley apartment building in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, 2009, most of its occupants escaped.

But two remained – until three local heroes pushed past the wreckage to bring them out.

Sgt. Joe Matteoni of the Grass Valley Police Department, firefighter Gary Dunne of the Grass Valley Fire Department and firefighter Jeff Johnston of Nevada County Consolidated Fire Protection District will receive commendations for valor for their roles in the August rescues.

Because of their actions, the lives of Karen Hughes, 45, and Ida Beckett, 83, were saved that day from a fire that totally consumed their building on the 300 block of Mill Street.

“It’s very humbling and a huge honor,” Johnston said of the upcoming award. “I view it as an award for every one of the firefighters that day. Firefighting is a team effort.”

Matteoni and Dunne could not be reached Friday.

City residents are fortunate to have the officers in their service, said Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout.

“The City Council is extremely proud of these young men for their valor in the face of danger,” Swarthout said.

The three are also up for a Public Safety Commitment Award at the annual Red Light Ball on Saturday, Feb. 27.

“We’re lucky to have guys that are this well-trained,” said Bill Drown, president of the Nevada County Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Council, which hosts the event and contributes tens of thousands of dollars to area law enforcement agencies. “Safety officers like these guys should be honored for their service above and beyond the call of duty.”

When calls went out that a fire had started at the apartment complex before 8 a.m., Matteoni was one of the first responders to the scene, said Grass Valley Fire Department Chief Tony Clarabut.

Upon arrival, a bystander told Matteoni that a woman was still inside the building and was calling for help. By that point, the dark cloud of thick smoke had enveloped the complex.

“The heat in that sort of situation is incredibly high and was still building up,” Clarabut said. “Visibility was very low.”

Matteoni, a 15-year veteran on the force, entered the rear second story exit, saw Hughes’ outline through the smoke and pulled her from the house. He did so without protective fire equipment, Clarabut said.

A short time later, residents of the building told Dunne, an eight-year firefighter with Grass Valley, and Johnston, a five-year firefighter with NCC, that Beckett also was still in the building.

The two went into the ground-level of the apartment, now filled with smoke to just six inches above the floor, found Beckett and pulled her to safety.

“It was complete black-out conditions,” Johnston said. “You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face.”

Unfortunately, Beckett suffered severe smoke inhalation before she was pulled from the building. The trauma from the fire and damage to her lungs plagued Beckett until she died Feb. 8, said her son, Tim Haley, a Grass Valley resident.

He said he was thankful for the firefighters’ efforts.

“The Grass Valley firemen were great,” Haley said. “I made sure to talk to several of them later that day, and Chief Clarabut called me last week to give his condolences after she died.”

Attempts to reach Hughes Friday were unsuccessful.

A cause of the fire was never determined, Clarabut said.

The trio’s commanding officers, NCC Chief Tim Fike, Clarabut and Grass Valley Police Chief John Foster, each commended their respective officers.

To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail or call (530) 477-4239.

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