The morning of Sept. 2, 2010, began like any other for four Rumpke Consolidated Cos. employees beginning their routes outside of Cleveland. They conducted pre-trip inspections of their rear load trucks, received route sheets and headed toward East Cleveland, a northeastern Ohio suburb.
Around 6:40 a.m., driver Joe Battaglia and Michael Jones Sr., also a driver but working as a helper that day, noticed smoke and fire billowing from a barbershop and apartment building. Bradley Wild, the driver of a second rear load truck, and his driver-turned-helper, Charles Voland, arrived moments later.
"It looked like something from a movie," Jones says. "The building was full of flames."
The crews immediately called 911 and began blasting their horns to draw attention. Then they decided to take more direct action, entering the building through a side door.
"People were living in there. We knew we had to do something," Wild says.
The men started banging on apartment doors to awaken those inside.
"We just wanted to get everybody out safely," Battaglia recalls. "If it was my family in there, I would want to get them out."
The men helped 10 people escape the burning building before the fire department arrived, including a mother and her two children. The residents had no idea their rescuers were waste collectors.
"If it were not for the actions of these men, it is very possible that the mother and her children would have succumbed to the smoke," says Cleveland Fire Assistant Chief Timothy O'Toole, noting that the subsequent fire damage left the apartments untenable.
Remarkably, once the crisis had been averted, the drivers quickly shifted their focus back to their daily duties, knowing that customers were still depending on their services.
"We arrived in East Cleveland by 7:05 a.m. and thought, 'We're late,'" says Jones.
The City of Cleveland Division of Fire honored the four drivers as Citizens of the Year during their annual awards and commendations ceremony held on Oct. 7.
"It was obviously a heroic deed," says Cleveland Fire Captain David Martanovic. "These guys did a great job. We can't say enough about them."
A rescued resident also visited Rumpke's Cleveland location and presented appreciation gifts to the heroes. Rumpke recognized the employees internally with a "Good Samaritan Award" and personalized safety jackets.
"Rumpke is fortunate to have a team willing to help others in need," says Andrew Rumpke, vice president at Rumpke and a third-generation family member. "We are proud to have these guys as part of our extended family. Their story offers a great example of the way workers throughout the waste industry make a difference in our neighborhoods."
When asked whether he would have run into a burning building given time to think about it, Battaglia responds without hesitation, "We wouldn't think twice if it happened again."
Jonathan Kissell is senior communications coordinator for Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Companies.