The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

November 3, 2013

'It's part of the job' | Officer downplays rescue of homeowner

JOHNSTOWN — It’s often said that heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

A local law-enforcement officer is being hailed a hero for pulling a man out of a burning house.

Sgt. Jeffrey Berkebile, 59, was working his usual “fairly quiet” graveyard shift – 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. – on Monday for Upper Yoder Township police.

But his shift suddenly went from quiet to hectic when he was first to arrive on the scene of a structure fire located a short distance from the township police station.

Springing into action, Berkebile kicked in the rear door of the Swank Street home of Joe Varmecky and pulled the resident to safety.

“It’s part of the job,” an unassuming Berkebile told our Justin Dennis.

But the rescue was far from ‘part of the job.’ You see, Varmecky is hearing-impaired and cannot speak, so he could not yell for help or alert rescuers as to his whereabouts in the burning structure.

“He sort of grunts – that’s how I heard him in the living room,” Berkebile said. “I just grabbed him by the shirt ... and pulled him outside.”

As if the rescue was not harrowing enough, Berkebile said he had to keep the headstrong Varmecky from re-entering the home.

“Joey’s stubborn,” the officer said. “As soon as I got him outside, he wanted to go back in. I wrote him a note saying, ‘cannot go back in.’ ”

Berkebile said it wasn’t until Varmecky saw the fire that he realized all was lost.

“I took him around the side to where the flames were coming out the upstairs windows,” Berkebile said. “He realized he wasn’t going back in.”

The sergeant downplayed his role in the rescue. He said he has pulled people to safety before during his 43 years with the township’s volunteer fire company.

“You know what you can do and what you can’t do with or without the gear,” he said.

The blaze was a double-jeopardy of sorts for Varmecky, who currently is staying with friends.

“He not only lost his home, he lost his business, his livelihood,” said neighbor Janice Meagher.

Varmecky, a woodworker, lost all the tools of his trade in the blaze.

We’re sure we can speak for the community, and Varmecky, when we say “thanks and job well done” to Berkebile.

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