From daring rescues on a flooded river, icy mountainsides and burning buildings, this year’s Valor Awards recognized first responders who put themselves at risk to save others.
After a year’s hiatus due to the pandemic, thousands gathered Thursday morning at the Greater Richmond Convention Center for the 31st annual event presented by the Retail Merchants Association.
“This is long overdue,” said Nancy Thomas, president and CEO of Retail Merchants. Accompanied by a standing ovation from the audience, she thanked not only first responders, but also educators and health care and retail workers — who have continued to work on the front lines during the global pandemic.
Forty-two people were honored for their actions “above and beyond the call of duty” that stemmed from 19 incidents spanning 2020 and 2021.
Chesterfield County firefighter Thomas Varner, who also volunteers with the Farmville Fire Department, rescued a kayaker stranded in a tree during a historic flood on the Appomattox River on Nov. 14, 2020. He paddled into the treacherous waters where a helicopter and boat could not reach because of debris from the flood, earning him a silver award.
Virginia State Police trooper pilot David Barfield and Lt. pilot Vincent Mancano; VCU Health flight nurses Kevin Kissner and Chad Springer; and Chesterfield County flight paramedics Nik Ronesi and Mike Abbott made up two teams that airlifted injured hikers from the Appalachian Trail on back-to-back days in February. Each received a bronze award.
For the first time, paramedics and EMTs with the Richmond Ambulance Authority were recognized alongside firefighters and law enforcement officials.
Last year, paramedic Daniel Miller and EMT Peter Strickland saved a man suffering mental distress and injuries after he’d stabbed himself several times. Earlier this year, paramedic Adam Godwin and EMT Kathryn Duren pulled a man to safety after he attempted to jump from a window, fighting them and shattering the window in the process.
“It’s a fantastic honor to be recognized among other first responders in the region, especially with what we’ve experienced in these last years,” said Mark Tenia, spokesman for the authority. “They don’t do this for the thanks, it’s their job.”
RAA Lt. Pete MacKerlich and Henrico County police officer Lawrence D. Pacifico Jr. each earned a silver award for pulling to safety two people threatening to jump from bridges in separate incidents.
Eleven other firefighters from Chesterfield and Richmond fire departments were recognized for their efforts during four separate fires that claimed the lives of seven people, including four children. Four officers from Virginia Commonwealth University received bronze awards for making at least five trips into a burning 12-story retirement home, where elderly residents needed help evacuating in January.
But the top prize, the gold award, went to four Chesterfield police officers for two separate incidents.
On Feb. 18, senior officer Joseph Coy and officer Sean McGann responded to the 11300 block of Sunfield Drive after receiving a report that a man there had threatened a woman with a knife and was holding her against her will. They shot Bruce Terry, who appeared to be armed with a pump-action shotgun that was later found to be a pellet rifle. Coy and McGann cleared the way for SWAT officers to capture Terry, still armed with a knife.
Terry survived the shooting and has since pleaded guilty to assaulting officers and brandishing a firearm.
Coy said Thursday he never expected an award.
“It’s humbling, seeing everyone else, and their stories,” he said. “Everyone who got an award, it was for helping people. I think it’s just what we signed up for.”
Cpl. Jordan Dodson and career officer Gordon Painter also received the gold award for another tense standoff, which lasted 11 hours and ended with them fatally shooting Jeffrey Kite.
Kite shot first, “at very close range,” according to a prosecutor who found that both sets of officers were justified in their use of force.
The two officers returned fire, discharging 47 rounds into the bed where Kite was hiding. He was struck 24 times.
Col. Jeffrey Katz, Chesterfield’s police chief, said he was proud of his officers and getting that thanks “fuels our work.”
“Stories weave tales of stunning teamwork and individual tenacity under the toughest circumstances of life or death, where success and failure are framed by split second decisions and actions,” said Tom Silvestri, retired publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who took over the role of the event’s emcee from the late Lisa Schaffner. She died suddenly in August, and her family was honored during Thursday’s event. “Most of us could not face what these professionals consider a routine day at the office.”
Thomas announced that she would be passing the torch of hosting the event next year to the 100 Club, which provides financial support to area first responders in times of crisis and need.