Inside the gallery: 2 Carnegie Medals from the 1970s tell the story of 2 harrowing fire rescues

Every year, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission distributes individually-struck, bronze medals to award recipients or their families with the hope that they will serve as a lasting reminder of the hero’s legacy — passed down generations as a cherished heirloom. Sometimes, however, medals find their way back to us. These are the stories of Carnegie heroes whose Carnegie Medals are displayed in the Hero Fund’s offices in Pittsburgh. The bronze medals of Edward P. Hendrix and Richard R. Dergousoff tell the harrowing stories of two fire rescues from the 1970s.

Edward P. Hendrix

On a warm Wednesday night in July 1968, Theresa Bentrovato, 25, was riding in the passenger seat of a brand-new Mercury Cougar, a two-door, hardtop convertible in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City. The Mercury Cougar came to a stop amid heavy traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway, behind a vehicle driven by Edward P. Hendrix, a 27-yearold wrestling coach from Highland Mills, N.Y., Hendrix’s vehicle contained several passengers, including his wife.

Meanwhile, another vehicle, approaching at high speed, collided with the Mercury, rupturing its fuel tank and splashing gasoline into the car’s cabin. Propelled by the force of the other car, the Mercury struck Hendrix’s vehicle — the impact causing the the gasoline inside the cabin to ignite — before it spun and stopped in the northernmost lane of the expressway.

The passengers inside Hendrix’s vehicle were stunned but unharmed. Flames appeared at the filler tube of Hendrix’s vehicle; everyone inside exited the car to safety. Meanwhile in the Mercury, flames 3 feet high issued from the cabin.

Stating later that he wasn’t worried about an explosion, Hendrix ran to the driver’s door of the Mercury where he saw the driver, unconscious and covered entirely in flames. Bentrovato sat in the passenger’s seat, her clothes and body on fire, screaming for help.

Hendrix reached through the driver’s window, over the man’s motionless body, and grasped Bentrovato. He pulled her through the vehicle and out the window. Bentrovato’s hair had burned off and her clothes smoldered as Hendrix dragged her 20 feet north, away from the burning Mercury. He removed his jacket and extinguished any remaining smoldering clothes.

Hendrix went back to the vehicle to aid the young man. He returned to within 2 feet of the driver’s door, but by then the man had been extensively burned and Hendrix presumed him dead. Hendrix returned to Bentrovato, and with the help of a bystander, dragged her 50 feet farther. Responding fire fighters extinguished the flames on the vehicles and Hendrix and Bentrovato were taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries sustained during the incident. Both recovered.

Hendrix received a bronze Carnegie Medal and a grant of $750.

Richard R. Dergousoff

On Jan. 15, 1971, 4-year-old Shane R. Stevens and his 12-year-old brother were in the basement of their Vancouver home. Working with a chemistry set, Shane’s brother set a burner atop a trunk and filled its fuel cannister with fuel from a gallon container of lighter fluid and lit the wick. He then attempted to place the uncovered cannister on a shelf, but it slipped from his grasp. The canister dropped, spilling the lighter fluid on his arm, the furniture nearby, and the cement floor, which immediately ignited.

Shane dropped to the floor, opened the door of a nearby cupboard, and attempted to crawl inside. His brother extinguished the flames on his arm and ran upstairs to alert his sister, 14, of the accident. It was then that Richard R. Dergousoff, a 25-year-old salesman, and his wife arrived at the home to pick up the brother. Learning that Shane was still in the basement, he ran outside to the west side of the house where there was an outside door to the basement.

Dergousoff forced open the locked basement door with his shoulder and entered the home. He went about 10 feet inside before he choked on the dense smoke. He retreated, took a fresh breath of air, and reentered the building. Crouching and holding his breath, he reached an interior door that was also locked.

He forced open the door with his shoulder. Inside that room, heat and smoke were more intense. Dergousoff said later that he saw the glow of flames in the corner of the room and heard Shane’s cries from that direction, but he couldn’t see the boy. Overcome by smoke again, Dergousoff exited the building and gasped for air.

Because his entries into the building only got him within 20 feet of where he thought Shane was located, Dergousoff decided he might be able to reach Shane through an exterior window that was a few feet closer to Shane. He kicked out the glass and extended himself to the waist through the opening. He could hear Shane crying, but he could not see him. Returning to the door, Dergousoff entered the basement a third time. He ran to the south room as conditions inside worsened. He got about 5 feet farther before the smoke caused him to cough violently. He retreated to the outside and cleared his lungs of the smoke.

Dergousoff entered again. He closed his eyes and moved toward Shane’s cries. Visibility was inches and the smoke burned his eyes. He closed his eyes and groped for Shane, finally locating him. He grasped the boy as his clothing ignited. Dergousoff picked up Shane, turned, and ran outside to safety.

Shane and his brother were taken to the hospital. His brother was treated for first-degree burns to his arm and released. Shane was hospitalized for three months for treatment of second- and third-degree burns to his hands and lower arms. Three of his fingers were amputated.

Dergousoff was not burned, but his clothing was scorched. He received a bronze Carnegie Medal and a grant of $750.