On a cool night in March of last year, Animal Control Officer Pete Fitzgerald was nearing the end of his shift when he did something that would earn him the Gold Medal of Valor, a distinction awarded by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce that is usually reserved for police officers and firefighters. He did not save a drowning dog. He did not trap a rabid raccoon.
As Fitzgerald drove around 10:00 pm that night, van windows down, he smelled an odor unusual for this area. It reminded him of when he worked in North Carolina, where its common for people to burn their trash. Seeing plumes of smoke in the air, he drove toward them, eventually finding orange flames billowing from a basement window on West Glebe Rd.
What Fitzgerald did next had little to do with his profession, but a lot to do with his job as a person.
I pushed the door open and there was a woman just standing there, holding an infant in a blanket, Fitzgerald said. I dont know why I did, I just ran in the house. Something said to me, Go in the house and make sure nobodys in there.
Holding her baby and in shock, the woman indicated to Fitzgerald in Spanish that there were others still in the house. After securing her safety, he headed right back into the conflagration and pulled out two more individuals.
Fitzgerald was about to go back in for a third time when Police Officer Nicholas Lion arrived at the scene to help. Between the two of them, everyone was evacuated safely, if feverishly. Eight people (two children, six adults) were eventually evacuated from the house. Officer Lion will also be receiving the Gold Metal of Valor April 21, at the 22nd Annual Public Safety Valor Awards at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center.
I was wrestling with one guy who was trying to go back into the basement, where the fire was, Fitzgerald said. The man, apparently intoxicated, wanted to gather his money and belongings, now buried under a house aflame. I was like, Youre not getting your money, man. Sorry.
As someone who has always wanted to be in law enforcement, acting in the manner he did seemed second nature for Fitzgerald. He entered animal control as a stepping-stone into police work, but little did he know he would be performing a firefighters duties one day.
Fitzgerald knows its unusual for an animal control officer to receive the Public Safety Valor Award, but says he would have done the same thing in his role as a citizen.
It was something unusual, but its hard to put into words, Fitzgerald said. I dont think of myself as a hero at all. The house was on fire. I didnt want anybody to get hurt in the house. I would put myself before anybody just so they wouldnt get hurt. Thats just me.
Whether Fitzgerald sees himself as a hero or not, he hasnt been able to deflect the label around town, where he is recognized and approached as that guy who pulled those people from a burning house.
In fact, his courage has made his job more difficult. On his beat at a local dog park, where the fenced-in grassy areas serves as a dog-walkers water cooler, Fitzgerald has that hero status, making it tough to write tickets to admirers.
Its hard now because people are coming up to me saying, I know you, Fitzgerald said. And I have to tell them, Youre letting your dog run loose, I have to right you a ticket.
Fitzgeralds actions werent in his job description. They were more apt for a firefighter or police officer, yet, his profession is inherently dangerous, entailing unpredictable animals and even precarious domestic situations involving humans. Aside from dealing with vicious animals, Fitzgerald said hes been yelled at and even had objects thrown at him.
As for the burning house, There were no animals in there at all, he laughed. Other than the humans. To rescue five people from a burning house was actually a pleasure. Id take that any day.