Modern day hero

Modern day hero – Ernest Albiero, Soldier

Bill Geddes

Reservist risks own life to save another, earns Soldier’s Medal

The medal was long overdue — Master Sgt. Ernest “Gorky” Albiero performed the actions that earned him the Soldier’s Medal four years earlier — but that was alright with Albiero. He wasn’t looking for recognition when he risked his life to save another — in fact he tries to avoid it.

Albiero was heading back to Fort Hood, Texas, from Brownsville, Texas, June 23, 1996, returning from a pass during his two-week annual training, when a welding truck passed him. Seconds later, Albiero came upon the truck, smashed into the back of a tanker truck, and on fire.

Another motorist had already stopped near the median, and yelled to Albiero that the welding truck driver was pinned inside. White smoke was already billowing from the truck. Albiero leapt into action, grabbing a fire extinguisher from his truck and rushed to assist. The driver was pinned inside, both doors were jammed shut, and the windshield was blown out.

“I ran up to the cab and flames were coming up over the guys head,” Albiero said. “I literally put the fire extinguisher on the guy’s face and put him out. But the fire kept coming up and coming up and coming up. So I kept putting it out and putting it out and putting it out.”

It wasn’t long before Albiero’s extinguisher gave out, and he started looking for another one in the welding truck. “It was one of those trucks with the little doors on the side. I opened one of them up and saw all these acetylene tanks,” Albiero said. “So I ripped them out of there and threw them onto the median. I opened another door and here’s 8 or 9 cases of starting fluid, you know, ether. That (stuff) will blow up, so I threw it out too. People came up and saw me throwing it out like I was a madman or something. I was throwing that stuff all over the highway.”

By this time a crowd had gathered, a crowd Albiero estimates to be around 200 strong. “I just kept yelling at them, ‘Bring me more stuff,”‘ Albiero said. “They would run up and get about 20 feet from the truck and throw these bottles of lemonade or milk at me, like gallon bottles. I’d take that and splash him with it. Something was on the floorboards that kept reigniting.”

The floorboards weren’t the only part of the truck on fire. Flames were also coming up from the hood — the place Albiero was climbing to splash the driver with whatever fluid was thrown to him — and while he didn’t realize it at the time, Albiero was getting burned too. Albiero was more concerned about the driver. “He looked like he was having a problem,” Albiero said. There was that plastic smoke coming up — you know, thick black — that stuff you can’t breathe. He was moaning at me, reaching out to me. I told him, ‘Don’t die, I’m going to stay with you until we get you out. I’m going to get you out of this truck, you just hang tough kid.’ He did, he hung on.”

Most of the crowd of 200 spectators was, understandably, leery about coming forward. They had, after all, just seen Albiero throwing acetylene tanks and bottles of ether out of the welding truck. And no one knew what was in the tanker truck. Fortunately, one other person did step forward.

“If I ever see that Mexican guy again, I’m going to give him a sloppy kiss,” Albiero said. “He saved my life.” Albiero never knew the man’s name, but thanks to his stepping forward and putting out the fire under the hood while Albiero put out the fire in the cab, he’ll never forget him.

Finally, 20 minutes after the accident, the paramedics got there. A paramedic ran up with the ‘Jaws of Life,’ a device used to free people trapped in vehicles, but she was too slight to get the job done. “You have to have enough (weight) to punch it into the door,” said Albiero, who used to work as a paramedic. Albiero punched it in and went to work.

“When I opened the Jaws of Life and I pulled the door off, I had bent down the top of the door. I tried to rip it down with my hands. I’m a big dude you know, so I could push it. When I got the door open, he was pinned in about 6-8 inches of space. I saw the fire extinguisher behind the seat.”

The paramedics got the driver out of the cab and went to work on saving his life. Albiero, exhausted after the 15 – 20 minute experience, and not yet aware of his burns, asked a police officer if he could leave. The officer told him to pull his car around; he’d let him through. “You don’t look too good either,” the officer said.

As he continued his drive back to Fort Hood, Albiero realized he was burned, and called his wife for advice. She told him to stop in at Wal-Mart and pick up some Neosporin. Albiero finally arrived at Fort Hood, a little bit late. “(My colonel) thought I’d gotten into a bar fight or something,” said Albiero. “I had bandages hanging all over me.”

Once he’d gotten back, Albiero grew curious as to what had become of the driver. He found out that the driver, Charlie Wasserman, had been taken to Brooks Medical Center at Fort Hood. Unable to find out any information on his own, Albiero contacted the chaplain for assistance. The chaplain, while investigating the situation, talked to Wasserman’s partner, who had been trailing Wasserman and was one of the 200 in the crowd. Knowing what was in the truck, he had been unwilling to come forward, but told the chaplain about some Army guy (Albiero was wearing his PT uniform at the time) who had put the fire out.

The next morning the chaplain came to where Albiero’s unit was training, told his commanding officer what he had done, and put Albiero in contact with Wasserman’s family.

From that point on, Albiero received updates from the family, and Wasserman was still alive when Albiero left Fort Hood. Unfortunately, Wasserman ended up dying eight days later. But, as Mary F. Wasserman, Charles mother, wrote in a letter to Albiero, “If (Albiero) had not been there, we would not have had those last few days with our son. This too was God’s plan, because our entire family has become closer as a result of the tragedy.”

Albiero was put in for a Soldier’s Medal, but the paperwork was lost. Because two years had passed, the medal could only be awarded if a congressional member reopened the case. Lt. Col. Jeffery S. Wierichs, wanting his soldier to receive appropriate recognition, wouldn’t let the award die, and contacted Albiero’s congressman, Rep. Dennis Hastert (III.). Hastert submitted the award, but the Army lost the paperwork again. Wierich continued to follow up, and Hastert again submitted the award.

Hastert presented the award to Albiero on May 30. “I haven’t presented an award like this before,” said Hastert. “It was really an extraordinary thing. I believe the Reservists are the core of the community. They do a great job, not only while on duty, but within their community as well.”

Those words definitely apply to Albiero. “Corky’s an old school soldier,” said Wierich. “He doesn’t look for reasons not to do things, he looks for solutions, for how to get things done.”

Albiero also got recognition within the community. On July 4, Albiero was one of three people who threw out an opening pitch at the Chicago Cubs game. “The first two people to throw out a pitch were your typical celebrities — the type who normally throw out the pitch — and the crowd booed,” said Albiero. “I got up there in uniform, and the announcer read why I was being honored, and the whole stadium stood up and cheered.”

They probably recognized Albiero’s attitude. “You don’t let another human being go to hell in a handbasket,” said Albiero. “You don’t sit back and watch, you help. That’s what soldiers do, soldiers do that stuff. I was probably the only soldier there. It’s an attitude. Army people have an attitude.”

Staff Sgt. Geddes is with the 364th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Army Reserve

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