FDNY firefighter Darren Harsch, a Hauppauge resident, is set to...

FDNY firefighter Darren Harsch, a Hauppauge resident, is set to receive a medal Wednesday for rescuing a fire lieutenant from a burning building after the roof collapsed.

Credit: Howard Schnapp

The FDNY’s Darren Harsch of Hauppauge had just helped a firefighter escape a blaze in south Queens last April where the roof had collapsed when it became clear there was still someone missing: a fire lieutenant.

Harsch, 38, sprung back into action: He followed the lieutenant's fire hose under the collapsed roof, homing in on the officer's passive alarm, which activates when a firefighter stops moving.

It was sometime after 2 a.m. on April 3, 2021, at a fire call that included a barber shop, hair salon and physical therapy office, and the lieutenant wasn’t moving.

With the help of seven or eight other firefighters, Harsch started cutting the collapsed roof to extricate the lieutenant, who was completely buried, eventually getting him to safety.

For his rescue efforts, Harsch, who joined the FDNY at age 21, is set to receive on Wednesday the Peter J. Ganci Jr. Medal at the fire department's Medal Day, an annual ceremony at which dozens of the bravest of New York’s Bravest are honored.

“When I first started, you fall in love with the job, and you fall in love with the fact that you’re walking into somebody’s worst day, you’re just trying to make it better,” Harsch said.

Back on April 3, before he and other rescuers located the trapped lieutenant, all they could rely on for help was their hearing.

“We begin methodically cutting away roofing material until we exposed the officer and were able to, essentially, remove him,” Harsch told Newsday last week in an interview. He added: “At one point, we had to cut across his body.”

After 15 minutes of being trapped, the officer, whose name wasn’t released, was free, albeit with pain to his back and shoulder. As for the fire itself, it destroyed a row of storefronts in Queens Village. More than 200 firefighters and emergency medical personnel were called in.

The roots of the Ganci medal Harsch is to receive date to 1869, and until two years ago, was known as the James Gordon Bennett Medal.

Bennett endowed the medal back then to honor firefighters who had saved his home. But in 2020, citing his “deeply racist beliefs” and use of his newspaper, the New York Herald, “to repeatedly express hateful views in full support of slavery,” the FDNY renamed the medal in memory of Ganci, the highest-ranking FDNY firefighter killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Ganci, who was with the department for 33 years and lived in Massapequa, had held every uniformed rank and was cited numerous times for bravery.

By tradition, Medal Day is held the first Wednesday in June, and before the pandemic, the ceremony had in recent years been in the plaza in front of New York City Hall.

In 1991, the medal went to a firefighter named William E. Jutt who the year prior had descended on a rope from a Manhattan roof, swung into a burning apartment on the seventh floor and picked up an unconscious woman in his arms. Then he swung out the window and perched on a ledge nearby with flames around the rope, until fellow firefighters put out the blaze. Then, still holding the woman, he swung back into the apartment.

In 2009, the award went to Anthony Romano of Oceanside, who saved a fellow firefighter from a burning building in Richmond Hill, Queens. The year before, Lt. James Congema of Smithtown got the award for rescuing three members of a family who were trapped in their Bronx apartment, and also helped save two others.

For Darren Harsch, who has trained extensively in how to rescue fellow firefighters, what he learned and practiced kicked in.

“In my head," he said, "I was just going through my check list.” 

That night, he said, "when I first started searching, it was hard for me to believe that there was an officer alive under that portion of roof, because it was so flat.”

He added: “It wasn’t until I reached in and grabbed what I thought was his arm, wound up being his leg, and it moved that I knew he was still alive.”

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