A Newbury Park man this week received the county's first Lifesaving Award for what Fire Department officials called heroic efforts to save a man's life after a flaming wreck in Simi Valley last month.
Steven R. Smith, a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, accepted the award from Rand-Scott Coggan, Ventura County fire chief.
"He put his life in extreme danger to save the life of another," Coggan said of Smith's actions after the accident, which claimed two lives.
Smith was flying in a Los Angeles County sheriff's helicopter Nov. 24 when he spotted the wreck moments after it occurred. A runaway trailer that had broken loose from a faulty hitch careened across the center divider and slammed head-on into the car, which was driven by Gerald Kosmatka of Moorpark.
The helicopter lowered Smith onto the roadside. He ran to the car and tried to pull Kosmatka out as flames and black smoke engulfed the car, Coggan said. Kosmatka was strapped in by a seat belt and his legs were trapped. Smith, wearing a suit that protected him from flames for up to 30 seconds, lay his own body across Kosmatka to protect him while working to free his legs. Another rescuer cut the seat belt and together they pulled Kosmatka from the vehicle.
"Yes, we're supposed to save lives," Coggan said of deputies and firefighters. "But there comes a point where you cross the line and put your own life in peril."
Kosmatka died soon after he arrived at Simi Valley Adventist Hospital.
One of his three sons also was killed. Kevin, 11, was thrown from the car and died at the scene. Christopher, 7, is slowly recovering in Simi Valley Adventist Hospital from massive head injuries.
Kosmatka's third son, Ryan, 12, suffered major injuries but has returned home from the hospital, said his mother, Connie Kosmatka.
The county Fire Department's awards program that includes the Lifesaving Award was not scheduled to begin until January.
"But we thought this was significant enough to be the kickoff for the program," Coggan said.
Smith turned the praise he received back to the handful of citizens who also stopped to help that afternoon.
"I've never seen anything like it," Smith said. "I've seen a lot of apathy out there. But this was incredible. I'll remember it as long as I live."
So will Connie Kosmatka, who hopes one day to meet Smith.
"To do something like that and risk his own life, he must really have the love inside him," she said. "God must really have had his hand on him."
In addition to his award from the Fire Department, Smith, along with six others, received commendations for their actions from the county Board of Supervisors.
The board honored Jim Jones, Jaime Terrassa and Ernie Bergman of Simi Valley; Geanne Caracciole, a Westlake Village nurse; Floyd Buck, and Steve Sullivan, a Los Angeles reserve deputy.