Chapter Sixteen: One of the heroes
John Reilly never traveled without his beeper. For a volunteer firefighter the beeper had become an important a tool as an axe or a oxygen mask, that all important connection with headquarters that warned him of a fire.
So when on one Thursday in April, he heard the beeper go off, he knew it meant trouble.
It was about 1 p.m. and he was just getting ready to go to work at United Parsel Service in the southend of town. In Secaucus, firefighters respond right from their jobs. A few years earlier, the local assemblyman, Anthony Impreveduto, had tried to get legislation through the state that would provide men like Reilly a few guarentees when answering calls, allowing companies to dock workers for time lost, but not fire them or deny them promotions because of calls such men responded to.
The legislation bogged down in committee and never managed to become law, yet in some towns like Secaucus, businesses rarely make an issue of volunteer service, and in Reilly case, and the case of numerous other workers, didn't even dock them pay -- a good will gesture that made such companies welcome neighbors in the community.
Reilly's beeper automatically set him into motion. He hardly had to think about what he was doing the actions were so routine, his hands grabbing for his protective clothing and oxygen pack -- a unit called a Scott Pack-- dumping them into the car as he hopped in after them.
Reilly's home was less than three blocks from the fire, which the police dispatcher said had been reported at Eighth Street and Centre Avenue. Eugene Pakulniewicz, 61, owner and resident of the home had called 911. His father, Leo, 81, was stuck inside the burning home.
Reilly -- whose company at Chicora Park a few blocks the other way on Centre Avenue -- had beat even them to the scene, and pulled up in front of a burning house
"As I pulled up I could tell that the fire was pretty bad," he said, noting that Department of Public Works supervisor, John Dubiel and politce officer Robert Ulrich told him there was someone trapped inside. "So I put on my gear and headed right in."
Wearing his Scott Pack, Reilly headed towards the open back door to the building. After 25 years on the fire department, his reaction was automatic, something he didn't think a lot about. He said he knew someone needed his help and he was going to reach that person.
As he entered the smoky door, Reilly was only aware of the fire engines arriving, along with additional police and an ambulance unit from Jersey City Medical Center.
Reilly later reported dense smoke inside the house and fire burning over his head. He had to feel his way along the wall, and when the heat grew too much, he crawled, making his way inch by inch deeper into the residences.
"I could hear shallow breathing like a moan," he said. "But I couldn't get a fix on it."
Reilly's experience as a firefighters, however, didn't keep him from being afraid, a matter made worse when he saw the indicator light on the Scott Pack telling him the oxygen levels were low.
"That usually means you have between three and five minutes to get out," he said.
But Reilly felt himself too close to the moaning to give up, so pulled his mask aside and yelled through the smoke, hoping him would hear someone call back.
"I finally heard it in my right ear," he said. "I was about 30 feet sindie before I felt a foot then realized the man was sitting in a wheel chair."
The quick-witted Reilly grabbed the chair and dragged it towards the back door -- though which Reilly had entered. Eventually he had to lift both victim and chair over his shoulder to get them down five steps.
"I don't know where the strength to do that came from, but I thank God I had it when I needed it," he said.
Outside, witnesses saw Reilly emerge from the smoke, carrying Leo and the wheel chair on his back. They also saw Reilly fall and not get up.
"I remember feeling complete numbness and falling to my knees," he said.
Reilly's Scott Pack ran out of air while he was in the building. But it was the moment he had removed the mask to call out to the man that had allowed smoke to seep into Reilly's lungs, causing his lungs to collapse a short time later.
He and the fire victim were rushed immediately to local Meadowlands Hospital.