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Air Force Times 2013 Airman of the Year: Firefighter saves helicopter crews from blaze

Airman saves helicopter crews, volunteers to help children with heart conditions

Jul. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
2013 Air Force Service Member of the Year
Master Sgt. William Janczewski is being honored for fighting fires and for helping families with critically ill children. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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Master Sgt. William Janczewski

Hometown: Harding, Pa.
When he joined the Air Force: 1995
Assignment: Assistant fire chief of training with the 19th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services Flight at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.
2012 volunteer efforts: Works with the Arkansas Congenital Heart Disease Coalition, helped raise $212,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Personal: His father and uncle both worked as fire chiefs, and he has been fighting fires since he was 14. For his high school graduation and 18th birthday present, he went to Pennsylvania’s State Fire Academy.

A fire roared about 10 feet away from 40,000 gallons of fuel. Two Army helicopters were refueling nearby, the crew unaware of the blaze that threatened them. And then the enemy began raining down mortar rounds.

This was the situation Master Sgt. William Janczewski faced last October at Camp John Pratt, Afghanistan, where he was leading a team of six firefighters responding to the call about a fire.

For his actions that day and his role in mentoring fellow firefighters and helping families whose children have serious heart conditions, Janczewski is the 2013 Air Force Times Airman of the Year.

Janczewski would later learn soldiers had thrown hot coals from a barbecue into a dumpster that was only feet away from two 20,000-gallon rubber fuel bladders. The helicopter crews could not see the resulting blaze because of T-walls.

But Janczewski could. He immediately focused on getting aircrews away from the blaze, oblivious to his own safety.

“I don’t know if it’s just inherently the nature of the job, being a fireman, but it’s ‘get the people to safety first and then worry about everything else later,’ ” he said.

Janczewski ran toward the aircrew, yelling, “Get the aircraft the hell out of here!”

As if the fire wasn’t enough, a mortar round hit the airfield. Rather than taking cover, Janczewski stayed to make sure the aircrews unplugged the fuel lines and were able to take off.

“There was no reason why I had to remain there. I just wanted to make sure the FARP [Forward Aircraft Refueling Point] guys heard me and they were pulling the lines to pull chalks for the aircraft to get out of the area,” he said.

Once the aircrew was safe, Janczewski and his team focused on keeping the fire away from the fuel.

“If it takes us 30 seconds to put some more foam on it to make sure the fire is not going to spread to the bladders, I’d rather take that than risk losing the whole FARP,” he said. “We only had 1,000 gallons of [fire suppression] agent. That’s not enough to extinguish a 40,000-gallon fire, so it was pretty important we could knock that down before it even got to that point.”

After the fire had been doused and the mortar attack ended, the firefighters began to realize just how dangerous things had been.

“None of us had taken any time to even think about it,” he said. “It was just get there, get the job done.”

Janczewski is currently with the 19th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Emergency Services Flight at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., where he is “the most versatile firefighter I have in the department,” said his boss, Fire Chief Don Smart.

“He’s been able to fill in nearly every position we have in the department,” Smart said. “As a firefighter individually, there’s not anything in the world that we deal with that he can’t do.”

Smart remembers how Janczewski sprang into action when a tornado hit the base in 2011, even though he was not on duty.

“He took over our emergency operations center and stayed with that job and with that task for more than 12 hours to support the operation,” Smart said. “At that particular time, he was not assigned to the fire department. He was actually assigned as the executive officer for the squadron commander, so he had other duties. But recognizing we had a need, he came and filled in without question, just like he was always assigned here and that was his regular duty.”

Another striking characteristic about Janczewski is that he makes sure the job gets done, even when he has to be away to help take care of his son, who has a very serious heart condition, Smart said.

“Not one single time has he ever asked to skip an assignment or a job tasking in order to take care of his family,” Smart said.

Janczewski’s youngest son, Ethan, was born in 2006 with a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which means he only has a right atrium and right ventricle in his heart.

At just seven days old, Ethan had his first open heart surgery, Janczewski said. He developed many complications, such as acute renal failure and staph infections.

“He was on and off ECMO [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation] twice, which is basically a portable lung heart bypass machine — he spent a total of two weeks on that,” Janczewski said. “His first hospital stay was almost five months long, and of those five months, four of them he spent in a chemically-induced coma — chest open, you could see his heart beating through his chest. It was bad.”

His family got through those terrible times with the help of close friends, who formed a support network. His way of giving back is to make sure no one has to go through that hardship alone, so he volunteers with the Arkansas Congenital Heart Defect Coalition to help families with children who have serious heart defects.

If they have questions, they can call him any time and with anything, he said.

“I don’t care what time of day it is, give me a call, I’ll answer them [the questions] or I’ll guide you in the right direction or point you to somebody who can give you the exact number you need.”

After Ethan, who is stable now, and Janczewski went on a Make-A-Wish Foundation-sponsored trip to Disney World, they paid back the foundation’s generosity by telling their story on a radio program about the organization. They raised $212,000 in pledges, enough to grant 43 wishes.

Even with all the time and effort he puts into his job and volunteer work, Janczewski is able to turn it all off and go to sleep.

“It’s just having that satisfaction of having done a good job that can let me sleep that well,” he said.

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