A Cape Coral police officer, Cape fire division chief and two detectives with the Lee Count Sheriff's Office were recognized Thursday by the business community as the 2013 Officers of the Year.
The Chamber of Commerce of Cape Coral and FOS Furniture hosted the annual awards ceremony during the chamber's Business After-Hours event from 6 to 8 p.m. at FOS, at 709 N. Del Prado Blvd. Pat Corlew, the owner of FOS, explained that they started the awards ceremony the year after 9/11.
"Everybody was focused on what was going on in New York, and we started to realize we have our own heroes here," he said.
The recipients are selected by each of their perspective agencies.
"They nominate one or two members," Corlew said. "We re-enforce that and give them an award from the business community. A little reminder of how thankful we are that they're out there protecting us."
The recipients of this year's Officer of the Year awards are CCPD Officer Stephen Burkhart and CCFD Division Chief Donald Cochran, as well as LCSO detectives Michael Tamulionis and Richard Russo.
According to officials, Burkhart responded in June to a car in a canal. Arriving to find a small SUV sinking, he jumped in, eventually broke a window of the vehicle and pulled the sole occupant to safety.
"I really wasn't thinking a whole lot of anything, except getting that guy out of the water," he said.
Burkhart explained that he first tried to get the driver's window to break, but it would not. He moved to the rear driver;s window and tried again. When the window finally gave, water began filling the SUV.
"He started panicking. He swam away from me right as the vehicle started going underwater," he said of the driver. "I stuck my arm in the vehicle, felt around for his shirt and pulled as hard as I could."
"There was a lot of things that would have gone wrong," Burkhart added.
Luckily, both he and the trapped man made it out safe.
"I'm very excited to be recognized as Officer of the Year, but I just did my job," he said. "I did what I said I would do when I was hired."
Burkhart has been with the Cape police since April 2009.
Tamulionis and Russo were nominated for locating Billy Ray Retherford, who was wanted in the murder of Deborah Striano in a home invasion robbery and later accused of murdering Gregory Imhoff. Retherford was shot and killed when he pulled a gun as detectives tried to take him into custody.
"I am honored that the Lee County Sheriffs Office has recognized Detective Russo and me for the actions taken with regard to the apprehension of Billy Ray Retherford," Tamulionis said.
Russo echoed that.
"I am honored that the Lee County Sheriffs Office has selected me for this award," he said, noting that he was still recovering Thursday from injuries sustained during Reutherford's apprehension.
Russo is currently on leave from the agency, officials reported.
"I appreciate the honor by the community and would like to express my deepest condolences to the victims and families of the horrible actions of Billy Reutherford during those few weeks," he said.
According to officials, Cochran is a 23-year veteran of the CCFD and head of the Hazardous Material Team. He worked diligently on the Insurance Service Organization Project, resulting in a more efficient and ISO-compliant department, lower insurance rates and a better utilization of department resources.
Cochran was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon.
"District Chief Cochran performs a broad range of assignments with efficiency and accuracy," Fire Chief Timothy Hayes said in a prepared statement released Thursday. "Don consistently displays high standards of professionalism and commitment to excellence."
Corlew explained that the award recipients and their families are invited to the ceremony.
"Many times, their wives and children and mothers and fathers come," he said. "It's a nice occasion."
The recipients are each presented with a plaque.
"Each department has their own prayer," Corlew said. "We have that on the plaque, along with their name, so they're all unique."