Michael Argy thought July 9, 2008 might be the last day of his life.
Argy was asleep in his second-floor apartment in North Syracuse when something — he’s not sure if it was the smoke or a fire alarm — woke him. Stepping out of his apartment, he discovered that the building, located at 417 South Main St., was on fire.
The situation quickly deteriorated as the building went up in flames. Argy stuck his head out the window of his bedroom, trying to get some air.
“I just tried to survive up to a certain point,” he said. “I couldn’t really breathe. The smoke kept getting worse and worse I remember thinking, ‘This is the end.’ I really didn’t think I was getting out of there.”
But then he heard the voice of the man who would save his life.
North Syracuse Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Timothy Ellis was the first firefighter to respond to the scene.
“It went out as a typical fire, and based on what was the dispatcher was telling us, I was [just] thinking we had a fire,” Ellis said. “I headed out, and when I arrived there, I was approached by a lot of bystanders kind of rushing my vehicle, telling me that someone was still inside.”
Ellis, a 20-year veteran of the department, had already requested help from mutual aid departments, but it had not yet arrived. Without the support of a hose line, Ellis decided he had to go in to try to get to the victim.
“I made the decision, and it was a necessary decision I entered the building and made my way up to his apartment,” Ellis said.
The fire was spreading rapidly, and smoke filled the building. Ellis became disoriented in the smoke, unable to figure out where he was in relation to Argy’s apartment. His anxiety building, Ellis signaled for a mayday, letting his department know he was in trouble.
Deputy Chief Patrick Brennan, who was the incident commander for the fire, took the call.
“When he sent out that mayday, I wanted to cry,” Brennan said. “I knew he was in trouble. But I also knew that if you yell and scream, you’re going to get people riled up, and I didn’t want to do that. I knew I had to be quiet and calm, and that would keep Tim calm and help him do what he needed to do.”
“The calmness of Chief Brennan just made everything good,” Ellis said. “I was able to reorient myself, figure out where I was, and I continued down the hall and started calling for Michael.”
Hearing Ellis’ voice was the last thing Argy remembered before losing consciousness. Ellis found him wedged between the bed and the wall in his apartment and carried him to safety. With the aid of his fellow North Syracuse firefighters, Ellis delivered Argy to the care of NAVAC crews waiting outside. NAVAC resuscitated Argy and took him to University Hospital, where he was treated for smoke inhalation and released the next day.
For his efforts to rescue Argy, Ellis was named Firefighter of the Year by the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY).
Ellis was nominated for the award by NSVFD Chief Mark Hogan.
“As a result of the unselfish act of courage and bravery, at extreme personal risk [Ellis] was able to take swift action to remove a trapped fire victim and save his life,” Hogan wrote in his letter of recommendation. “His failure or delay in taking these actions would have led to a much more tragic outcome Ellis has set a fine example of valor, courage and bravery, bringing credit upon himself and the members of the North Syracuse Fire Department. He is the ideal individual for the FASNY 2009 Firefighter of the Year Award.”
FASNY agreed, giving Ellis the honor at a ceremony in Niagara Falls on Aug. 20. A local ceremony was held Sunday Aug. 23 at the firehouse on Chestnut Street, with Ellis being presented with proclamations from FASNY, State Sen. John DeFrancisco, Assemblyman Al Stirpe, County Executive Joanie Mahoney, County Legislator Kathy Rapp and North Syracuse Mayor John Heindorf. He was also lauded by several members of FASNY.
“Tim, I said this to you before, you’re a true hero,” FASNY Director Brian McQueen said. “You people, other firefighters and residents of North Syracuse, residents of Onondaga County, you should be very proud of Tim.”
Ellis is only the fifth Central New Yorker to receive the honor since its inception in 1955. He is the second North Syracuse firefighter; Al Lewis received it in 1977.
“Not only is the rescue that Tim did an example of the type of volunteers we have in New York state, but I also want to congratulate him on his leadership,” FASNY Second Vice President Joseph Kelly said. “It’s the way that we like to see the volunteers. It’s an example we like to give, a guy like Tim, to the state to say, ‘This is what you want to be when you grow up.'”
Indeed, for Ellis, being a firefighter was a lifelong ambition; his interest in being a firefighter began when he was a teenager in Howlett Hill.
“I joined the Explorer post,” he said. “At 14, there really isn’t a lot to do in Howlett Hill, so we all joined the fire department.”
The interest only grew from there.
“Once I joined and I got to see what this is all about, it just became something I really, really like to do,” he said. “I like helping people. I stuck with it.”
Argy was certainly grateful that Ellis stuck with firefighting.
“It’s kind of hard to put it into words,” Argy said of his gratitude to Ellis. “I feel like I have a special bond with Tim. He’s a great guy. Thank God he was there.”
Though he was the recipient of the award, Ellis emphasized that the rescue was a team effort made possible by the entire North Syracuse Volunteer Fire Department.
“I was the first on the scene there and I had to make the decision,” he said. “But once the situation worsened, as with every fire, we show up as a team. The way people pulled together that day was unbelievable. It really was truly a team effort that I will never forget. Without that team effort, you don’t have such a successful outcome.”
Ellis said, for that reason, the award truly belongs to the entire department.
“It represents each and every firefighter that walks through these doors.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.