You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Eight Heroes and a Community Leader Recognized at PNC Park Event

The American Red Cross honored eight heroes and presented a Community Leadership Award at the Eighth Annual Red Cross Heroes Breakfast on Thursday, Sept. 15, from 7:30 to 9 a.m., at the Rivertowne Brewing Hall of Fame Club at PNC Park on the North Shore.

WPXI-TV sportscaster Bill Phillips served as the emcee. In addition to honoring this year’s heroes, the Red Cross presented a Community Leadership Award to Lisa C. Epps, fire inspector, with the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire.  

The event, a fundraiser for the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania, is designed to honor everyday heroes in eight categories and to recognize an outstanding community leader. The heroes were selected by an independent panel of media representatives from nominations received from the public. The 2016 heroes include:

1.    Educator Hero: Robert M. Jones, Jr., President of Brothers and Sisters Emerging (B.A.S.E) and a Co-founder of Garfield Youth Sports

2.    Firefighter Hero: Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Firefighters Lt. James O’Toole, Nathan Oliver, Benjamin Sovyak and Edward Podgorski

3.    Good Samaritan Hero: Ian M. Heffernan, Customer Service Manager, Hermitage Wal-Mart Store

4.    Medical Professional Hero: James S. Withers, M.D., FACP, Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net

5.    Military Hero: M. Sgt. James P. Wilfrom, Jr., USMC

6.    Professional Responder Hero: Officer Kevin Cragle, Franklin Township, Beaver County

7.    Youth Hero: Jaimere Washington, City of Pittsburgh

8.    Lifetime Commitment to the Red Cross: Carol L. Adams, ALCOSAN, and Red Cross Volunteer

 Launched in 2009, the Annual Heroes Breakfast has recognized a total of 50 heroes and five community leaders in eight years. This year’s event is sponsored by MSA, The Safety Company, Columbia Gas, Duquesne Light, University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and UPMC Health Plan. Support is also provided by the United Way of Allegheny County.

 Listed below are the 2016 heroes’ stories:

Educator Hero, Robert M. Jones, Jr. Bob Jones is President and CEO of Brothers and Sisters Emerging (B.A.S.E.), a non-profit organization formed to serve as the umbrella organization of Garfield Youth Sports (G.Y.S) which has been in existence for over 19 years. The mission of B.A.S.E. is to develop thriving African-American and other youth and their families in Garfield and surrounding at-risk neighborhoods to find and take advantage of opportunities available to them. The B.A.S.E. vision is that, through sports, mentoring, advocacy, and other activities, B.A.S.E. will assist youth and their families in achieving successful educational performance, acquire appropriate social and emotional skills, and attain a solid economic future. A co-founder of Garfield Youth Sports, Bob is a life-long resident of the Garfield community. Bob graduated from Peabody High School in 1987. He attended Waynesburg College (Waynesburg University), where he earned a B.A. in Public Service Administration. He played football in high school and college. Bob serves a volunteer football coach for the Garfield Gators and is an inspiring mentor and educator to youth both on and off the football field.

 Firefighter Heroes, Lt. James F. O’Toole, Nathan Oliver, Benjamin Sovyak, Edward Podgorski - On Jan. 1, 2016, Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire firefighters were called to respond to a house fire with possible entrapment in the 1000 block of Ross Avenue in Wilkinsburg. According to newspaper accounts, the firefighters responded within five minutes. Two adults and a nine-month-old made it out of the house safely, but an elderly resident was trapped on the second floor. Upon arriving at the scene, the firefighters moved quickly to prepare equipment and enter the structure. Once inside, Lt. O’Toole made it to the second floor where he found the 86-year-old woman in a smoke-filled bedroom. Although she was semi-conscious, Lt. O’Toole and Firefighter Benjamin Sovyak lifted her out of the window into the waiting hands of Firefighters Nathan Oliver and Edward Podgorski. After she was safely lowered to the ground, the firefighters re-entered the house from the second story window to join other firefighters in their efforts to suppress the fire. Encountering what is known as a “flashover”, the firefighters nearly became trapped as flames engulfed the first and second floors. The only choice for them was to jump from second-story windows. Fortunately, the elderly resident and all the firefighters survived, although seven of the firefighters sustained injuries with some of them in serious condition.

 Good Samaritan Hero, Ian M. Heffernan – Even though it was early on the morning of New Year’s Day in 2016, overnight Customer Service Manager Ian M. Heffernan felt it had been an uneventful night at the Wal-Mart store in Hermitage. With just a couple hours left in the shift, someone entered the store and told employees there was a car on fire in the parking lot. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran outside. He found a car with the driver slumped over the steering wheel and flames leaping up from the front of the car. The driver had passed out with her foot on the accelerator. The car doors were locked, but a window was down far enough for Ian to reach in and unlock the door. He pulled the woman out of the car and helped her to safety in the store. “A lot of people have called me a hero…but I don’t feel like a hero…everyone, given the circumstances…if they had to perform a deed similar to mine, I know that they would,” he said.

Medical Professional Hero, James S. Withers, M.D., FACP – Dr. Jim Withers is founder and medical director of Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net. What began in 1992 as an educational experience for medical school students quickly grew into an award-winning, innovative, medical and social service outreach program for the unsheltered homeless population in Allegheny County. Since its founding, Operation Safety Net has reached approximately 10,000 homeless individuals with more than 68,000 visits where they live – in camps along riverbanks, in alleyways, or beneath bridges and highway overpasses – and has successfully helped more than 1,200 individuals who were once homeless to find homes of their own. In doing so, Operation Safety Net not only assists with providing health care and affordable housing, but also offers this vulnerable population hope, dignity, and a sense of community. Operation Safety Net is part of Pittsburgh Mercy and Trinity Health, serving in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy.

Military Hero, M. Sgt. James P. Wilfrom, Jr., USMC – On the afternoon of June 8, 2014, M. Sgt. James P. Wilfrom, Jr. was home on leave, relaxing at his parents’ home in Mt. Oliver. The family heard yelling outside and, when he went out to investigate, Sgt. Wilfrom heard calls for help. Several houses in the neighborhood were on fire. Running towards the fire, he was joined by neighbor Al Scroggins. They approached the home of Loretta Marburger who was trapped inside her smoke-filled home. A few minutes earlier, she smelled smoke and went outside to find her neighbors’ house on fire. She banged on their door to alert them and tried to get a garden house to douse the fire. The flames spread quickly to her home and she went back inside where she became trapped in the smoke-filled kitchen. Sgt. Wilfrom and Mr. Scroggins kicked in her front door and called out for her. They made it through the blinding smoke and heat to reach her in the back of the house. Coaxing her to leave the house, they took her by the arms and pulled her through the house to the front door where they collapsed in the front yard. In a just a few minutes, her house was engulfed in flames. She credits them both with saving her life. For Sgt. Wilfrom, this was the second time he had performed a heroic deed. In 1995 while stationed overseas, he saved several boys from drowning and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his bravery. When his commanding officer heard of Mrs. Marburger’s rescue, he put Sgt. Wilfrom in for a second Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Sgt. Wilfrom is only the third person to receive the medal twice.

 Professional Responder Hero, Officer Ken Cragle – Officer Kevin Cragle, a full-time police officer with Koppel Borough Police Department, as well as part-time officer with the North Sewickley Township Police Department, had just returned home from a 4 p.m. to midnight shift. Shortly after he turned in for some much-needed rest, he was awakened by a very loud explosion. “The whole house shook,” he said. Running outside, he saw a neighbor’s car in flames. He was about to go back inside to call 9-1-1 when he saw an arm waving out the window. Sprinting towards the car, he saw a woman in the drivers’ seat with flames rapidly spreading to the front seat. It was later surmised that gasoline fumes from a gas can in the trunk of the car ignited, blowing out the windows and jamming the doors shut. Officer Cragle reached into the vehicle and pulled his neighbor through the window and dragged her to safety. She was disoriented and groggy from the explosion and had suffered burns, but was alive thanks to Officer Cragle.

 Youth Hero, Jaimere Washington Jaimere Washington, a resident of the City of Pittsburgh and a student at City Charter High, has an engaging personality and a talent for communicating. A dedicated young man, he served an internship at the regional headquarters of the American Red Cross of Western Pennsylvania this year. Everyone who worked with Jaimere took an instant liking to him. He valued his internship and was honored to serve alongside Red Cross staff and volunteers. One of Jaimere’s favorite tasks was to call families who had been assisted by the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces program. “It was an honor,” as he described it. In addition to his internship and school studies, Jaimere somehow finds time for church activities, in which he is very involved, along with a part-time job at McDonald’s. He values his brothers and sisters as mentors. Although his mother passed away a few years ago, he recalls her as his biggest inspiration. Jaimere aspires to attend college and major in Communications or another field that takes advantage of his skill as a communicator. Whatever he chooses to do in life, it is certain that Jaimere will be a success and an outstanding role model.

 Lifetime Commitment to the Red Cross - Carol L. Adams joined the Red Cross as a volunteer in 2002. Her reasons for becoming involved with the Red Cross, however, were not the usual volunteer’s motivations. Carol, a senior systems analyst, disaster recovery/business continuity coordinator with Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), was interested in learning how to ensure employees would be prepared in the event of a disaster. She learned that and much more in the 14 years since she became a volunteer. Having served as a disaster volunteer and instructor, disaster preparedness and outreach volunteer, and government liaison among other duties, Carol has enjoyed a rich and fulfilling experience with the Red Cross. She invited the Red Cross to participate in ALCOSAN’s award-winning Annual Open House to showcase emergency preparedness and she continues to look for opportunities to engage the community with the Red Cross. She has many memorable volunteer experiences, among which is her service with Pennsylvania Emergency Management during the 2015 papal visit to Philadelphia. Carol describes the Lifetime Commitment to the Red Cross Hero Award as “one of those hugs that came back to me that – in a million years – I never would have expected.”

 Community Leadership Award, Fire Inspector Lisa C. Epps – Lisa C. Epps, fire inspector with the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, became a firefighter in 1990. She was looking for a career change and a job where she could help people and be out in the community. After 23 years as a master firefighter, Lisa joined the fire prevention office of the Bureau of Fire. In this role, Lisa works tirelessly in the community to enforce fire safety laws, and to teach fire prevention to children, adults and seniors. When she joined the Bureau as a firefighter, she was just one of two female firefighters in a male-dominated workforce. Lisa accepted the challenges of her job and worked hard to prove herself to her fellow firefighters. An accomplishment of which she is most proud is working with the City of Pittsburgh to provide separate sleeping and restroom facilities for female firefighters. Lisa has also been involved in recruiting new firefighters for the Bureau of Fire. Teaching fire safety is her passion and she has joined with the Red Cross in its Home Fire Campaign to install free smoke alarms in city residents’ homes, and teach them fire safety and prevention. This fall, the campaign is working actively in the Hill District, where there will be several fire safety events along with a smoke alarm installation event. Lisa has been a true leader in her profession as a firefighter and in ensuring the community is well educated about fire safety.