CITY HALL — Lt. John Majka looked uneasy as reporters swarmed around him asking how it felt to be called a hero.
"I'm a little overwhelmed honestly," said Majka, a 27-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department. "I'd much rather be at the firehouse right now."
Instead, Majka, along with 29 other firefighters and police officers, were honored at City Hall Tuesday morning for heroic acts in the line of duty that rivaled anything dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter.
Included in the awards were the Lambert Tree Award and the Carter Harrison Award, the top honors for the Chicago police and fire departments.
Majka and fellow firefighter Anthony Licato were given the Lambert Tree Award for rescuing a bed-ridden, 94-year-old woman from a burning home in October 2012.
As Majka and his crew arrived at the Washington Heights home in the 400 block of West 99th Street, family members of the woman frantically told them she was trapped on the second floor of the building.
Without waiting for water to douse the fire, Majka ran into the home to the second floor bedroom, directly where the flames were coming from, and crawling on the floor. He spotted the woman's ankle hanging off her bed.
The old woman was burned and unresponsive, but Majka saw her take a breath. He brought her out to the hallway, where fellow firefighter Licato was making his way up the stairs with a hose.
Together, the two carried the 94-year-old out of the burning house, and paramedics were able to revive her before rushing her Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
Tuesday, Majka, 49, and Licato, 35, were awarded the annual Lambert Tree Award for their actions.
During the ceremony, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago joked his firefighters would rather "face a raging inferno than stand here today and be recognized."
Afterwards, Licato, like Majka, admitted he was a little uncomfortable with the limelight.
"I would totally rather be at the firehouse," Licato, a West Town resident, said. "But we do appreciate it."
Majka, of Morgan Park, insisted anyone of the members of his battalion would have acted the same way but said the job of rescuing the woman happened to fall to him.
Asked what it is like running into a burning building, Majka said it is simply what firefighters do.
"I can only speak for myself, you know, you have to choke down the uncertainty and that fear and push forward," he said. "I think it's only human to [feel] that, but that's what we do."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel told family and friends in the City Council chambers gallery that police and firefighters are recognized during "big days" like the 2012 NATO summit or the 2013 Stanley Cup celebration, but said Tuesday's ceremony was about highlighting the "big things" those in uniform do everyday.
"You all do something that is not natural or common or accepted," Emanuel said. "If there's a fire, we run away. You run into it. If there's gunfire, we hide. You find out who did it."
Licato, a 10-year veteran, also insisted acts like last October's rescue is part of the job, something every firefighter does.
And receiving a plaque is nice, but the best part of Tuesday's ceremony, Licato said, was seeing his two sons, ages four and two, in the gallery.
"That was the most special part for me, for my children to be here today," he said. "They love the fire department, so this was a big day for them."
Also at the ceremony, the Carter Harrison Award was given to two police officers who were shot in the line of duty in July 2011.
Officers Jeffrey Friedlieb and Ruben Del Valle were both shot while conducting a narcotics stop in West Garfield Park. A bullet is still lodged behind Friedlieb's left ear, where he was shot, and Del Valle was shot in his arm and grazed on his head. The gunman was later arrested and charged, police said.
The Lambert Tree Award and Carter Harrison Award began in 1885 when Judge Lambert Tree donated $700 to the city for a gold medal to be awarded to a firefighter. Mayor Carter Harrison matched the gift so a police officer could also be honored. The two awards alternate each year between departments.
Other honorees Included:
Police Department Honorable Mentions:
- Lt. Don Jerome
- Sgt. Phillip Orlando
- Officer Santos Reyes
- Officer Nyere Buckner
- Officer James Bansley
- Officer Wenseslao Zavala
- Officer John Sego
- Officer Victor Portis
- Officer Michael Alaniz
- Officer Nyls Meredith
- Officer Pedro Ortiz
- Officer Todd Mueller
- Officer Edgar Hernandez
- Officer Frank Salvage
Fire Department Honorable Mentions:
- Lt. Michael Kappel
- Firefighter James Wagner
- Firefighter Cedric Collins
- Firefighter John McClorey
- Firefighter Joseph White
- Firefighter Edtismond Johnson
Award of Valor:
- Firefighter John Veller
- Fire Paramedic Edward Gilbride
Richard Albrecht Award of Merit:
- Firefighter Robert Simpson
- Firefighter Robert Shannon
- Firefighter Patrick Jessee
- Paramedic-in-Charge Mark Kiely