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Debien named Massena Fire Department’s Fireman of the Year

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MASSENA - A Massena firefighter who helped get two people to safety during the March 16, 1998 fire at the former Albion Hotel on South Main Street was recognized Saturday night as this year’s Massena Volunteer Fire Department Fireman of the Year.

James F. Debien was cited for his efforts in helping to get Richard Ashlaw and James Baker out of the hotel. Mr. Ashlaw, who at the time was the commander of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Massena post, had rushed into the hotel and was trying to get Mr. Baker out of the building when he received assistance from Mr. Debien, Massena Fire Chief Thomas C. Miller said in announcing this year’s winner.

Mr. Miller said he had talked with Mr. Ashlaw about the fire and was told that, upon learning someone was in an upstairs bedroom, he had grabbed a fire extinguisher in an attempt to quell the flames and enter the bedroom.

“There were flames everywhere and heavy, heavy smoke,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Ashlaw was able to reach Mr. Baker and grab his wrist to start pulling him out, but became overwhelmed by the smoke and had a hard time pulling the man, according to Mr. Miller.

He managed to drag Mr. Baker into the hallway, and that’s where Mr. Debien entered the picture, locating the two men and carrying them out of the burning structure. Mr. Ashlaw told Mr. Miller it was like a bear grabbing them to get them out of the building and to safety.

Mr. Miller described Mr. Debien, a past chief and member of the department for more than 40 years, as “very modest and very quiet.” In fact, in accepting the award, Mr. Debien’s only comments were “What a surprise. Thank you.”

Mr. Miller said the volunteer spirit runs in the Debien family. Mr. Debien’s wife, Robin, is a member of the fire department’s auxiliary and two sons, James Debien Jr. and Corey W. Debien, are also members of the department.

“This guy is dedicated,” he said.

Mr. Miller said members can put in a nomination for Fireman of the Year and it’s up to him, 1st Assistant Chief Ted Krywanczyk and 2nd Assistant Chief Bill Kearns to select the winner.

“This is never easy because it takes the whole department to be successful,” he said.

And the department has been successful in its long history, according to speakers at Saturday night’s annual banquet.

“Our fire department speaks for itself,” Village Trustee Albert “Herb” Deshaies said. “We have second to none in the whole north country north of Syracuse. We get behind them whatever they do.”

“We’re so proud of the work that you do and everything you do for this community,” Town Councilman Albert N. Nicola said, thanking them for “putting your lives on the line.”

Baylee Carroll, this year’s fire queen, said she was appreciative of the honor to represent those who sacrificed their time to go out on calls, undergo training and visit schools as part of their Fire Prevention Week efforts leading up to the annual banquet.

She said her mother’s father was a firefighter for more than 60 years and could recall his pager going off occasionally while they were visiting.

When those calls came in, Ms. Carroll said, firefighters were “randomly stopping whatever you are doing to go help people you don’t even know.”

“You have all been there for every one of us in this community. This community here is very proud,” said the Rev. Judith Van Kennen, pastor of Emmanuel Congregational Church, which was struck by a fire on May 10, 2007.

In addition to naming their Fireman of the Year, the chiefs also recognized other organizations they had worked with throughout the year, including the department’s drivers, its exempt firefighters, its ladies auxiliary, the village and town of Massena, Helena and Louisville fire departments, Massena Rescue Squad, the county’s Office of Emergency Services, St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department, New York State Police and Massena Electric Department.

They also recognized fellow firefighters for years of service. Gary Donaldson was recognized for 45 years of service, David Sedlock was recognized for 40 years of service, and George Brouse and Fred Kellison were recognized for 15 years of service.



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