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Heroic acts prevent major tragedy during facility fire.

On July 2, 1991, a fire broke out just after noon in a third floor storeroom of the Pontiac Correctional Center. Smoke quickly filled inmate housing units.

Staff evacuated the inmates, many of whom needed to be individually released from their cells. In some cases, staff repeatedly returned to the smoke-filled units to rescue inmates. One two-man team, blinded by smoke, counted cell doors by hand in a successful effort to find and save an inmate passed out under his bed.

"When they came out, their faces and clothes were black--you couldn't recognize them," Warden Richard B. Gramley said.

While the fire was still being extinguished, officials removed the inmate suspected of starting the fire from a protective custody yard. This led other inmates in the yard to become hostile. Despite the danger, nearby medical staff continued treating those injured in the fire without interruption or regard to their own safety.

Three hours after it began, the fire was out. Twenty inmates and 11 staff received treatment at a nearby hospital for smoke inhalation, but the staff's efficient response prevented extensive injuries and minimized damage.

"Without all the audits and careful follow-up on all the details over the years, months and weeks prior to the incident, we might very well have heroically failed," Correctional Counselor Ken Murphy said. Instead, he said, everyone knew what needed to be done, and helped each other do it. "When it was over," Murphy said, "I realized that I had just walked the earth with giants."

"In my 24 years of experience, it was the most potentially catastrophic event I've seen," Gramley said. "But the staff's performance and the recognition the facility has received have helped turn it into a positive experience."

In recognition of their heroism, the staff was awarded ACA's prestigious Medal of Valor at the annual Winter Conference in Miami in January. Illinois Department of Corrections Deputy Director Larry Mizell accepted the award on behalf of the staff.
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Title Annotation:Best in the Business; heroism of the Pontiac Correctional Center's staff
Author:Spertzel, Jody K.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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