William H. Young, president of the 302,000 member postal union, handed over the award jointly to the five -- Alan Girard of Fremont, Rick Quinonez of Hayward, Gilbert Rangel of Vacaville, Tonya Joseph of El Sobrante and Karen Hill of America Canyon. The award ceremony was held in Washington DC before a small audience of families and union members. As the story of their rescue was read out by Young, they held hands and exchanged warm hugs afterwards.
On October 6th 2007 Alan Girard was finishing his route around 3 pm when he smelt acrid smoke. A fire had erupted in a six-storey retirement home that stood right next to the Post Office. When the glass windows on the second floor exploded and flames hurled upwards he knew immediately that the elderly residents were in grave danger.
Using his passkey to gain entry, Girard quickly pulled a fire alarm and knocked on doors to alert residents of the spreading blaze. He soon realized he had to not only alert them but because of their age had to help them out of the building as well.
Meanwhile, four others at the Post Office had also seen the fire and they reached the building to start pulling people out.
Alan Girard said, "I didn't even know they were there. Somehow we just worked with each other and off each other in a way that was unreal."
He remembers that it took about 11 minutes for the rescue services to arrive. But by then the five letter carriers had completed the rescue albeit with one casualty. An 87-year old woman who lived in the apartment where the fire started could not be saved.
When the audience heard of this story the five letter carriers were given a standing ovation. In his closing remarks Young said, "You may never see them immortalized in a comic book, or in a Hollywood movie. But these are real people who have performed real heroics. So it is fitting that we recognize their achievements and honor their courage."
Judges for the awards were Jordan Biscardo, AFL-CIO Community Services liaison at United Way of America; Shelby Halmark, Director, U.S. Labor Department's Office of Worker's Compensation Programs, and Phil Guercio, Chief of Montgomery County (MD) Fire and Rescue Services.