The woman was barely conscious and suffocating on the second floor of her burning house in Westbury. Police officers who rushed into the house to rescue her were blinded by thick smoke from floor to ceiling.
"I said, 'I'm going to die,' " Lesley Berman, 57, recalled Wednesday of what she thought were her final moments inside the house on Jan. 11, 2010. "I gave up."
Fortunately for Berman, the Nassau officers didn't. Even after being turned back by the smoke and flames, Officer Mark Iovino and his colleagues made another run at the burning house. Iovino crawled through the smoke, somehow found Berman, and pulled her to safety.
Wednesday, Iovino was one of 20 people honored in the United States and Canada with the prestigious Carnegie Medal for heroism in saving lives. The 20 were selected from more than 80,000 nominees. Six of the recipients died performing their heroic acts.
The medal was given to Iovino by the Carnegie Hero Fund, which was established in 1904 by the Pittsburgh-based industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Some 9,452 heroes -- including three Long Islanders last year -- have won the award, which includes a $5,000 prize.
"He saved my life and that is the bottom line," Berman said. "I can tell you I am 100 percent sure I would have died."
Iovino, 42, a seven-year Nassau police veteran from Bay Shore, said yesterday he and the other officers were just doing their jobs, though he acknowledged the rescue mission was fraught with danger.
"At first it is instinctive," he said. "You hear someone yell for help" and you try to save them.
Iovino thought it was going to be just another routine call when he and his partner Brian McQuade got word of the fire. First reports said all of the occupants had made it out.
But when they arrived, firefighters were not yet on the scene. Berman's husband, Bryan, 54, started yelling that his wife was trapped on the second floor. Iovino and McQuade ran up the stairs, heard Lesley Berman call for help, but could not see anything or find her, Iovino said.
They were forced back downstairs.
"I tell my partner, 'We have to do something, or this lady is going to die,' " Iovino said.
He grabbed a pot of water from the sink, sucked in his breath, ran up the stairs, and crawled as he swept the room with his hands. McQuade and two other officers, Charlie Javorowsky and Dan Doerrie, followed but remained on the stairs in the burning house.
As the seconds ticked by, McQuade screamed for Iovino, wanting to make sure his partner was OK. But Iovino could not answer. He was holding his breath because one gulp of the toxic smoke might have killed him. After a minute he could hold his breath no longer, and was about to flee when he felt some hair. And then a head.
When he finally felt the hair he was not even sure it was a human being, Iovino said. But then he felt the head, and knew he had her.
The only way he could find his way out, he said, was by following his partner's yells. Eventually Iovino and the other officers carried Berman to safety.
Tom Krumpter, Nassau's acting police commissioner, said Wednesday that Iovino and the others "acted beyond expectation. This home was an inferno."
Lesley Berman said she was thankful to be alive to share in the occasion.
"I am forever grateful," she said. "You saved my life and I will love you forever."
With John Valenti