Columbia County Sheriff Dennis Richards asked a young man to take a moment to stand in front of a crowd and be recognized for standing by a friend in the worst of conditions.
“What do you say to someone like that? There aren’t words. I’d be happy to have you work beside me anytime,” said Richards, presenting an award of citizen recognition to Alex Wade on Thursday at the county’s Administration Building, for his actions during the explosion and fire at the Didion Milling plant in Cambria the night of May 31.
“For someone to react like that, when the majority of us would be high-tailing it — just because the explosion had taken place didn’t mean there wasn’t going to be another one, or the fire, or more debris. You’re a heck of a friend; you really are.”
Wade was in a train car where he had been tossing bags of corn with Collin Vander Galien when the explosion happened. It pinned Vander Galien’s legs beneath the frame of the overturned train car, partially submerged in water.
“Mr. Wade was able to call 911 and stayed with his co-worker as rescue units arrived on the scene. Because they were within the rubble of the scene, it took approximately 2½ hours for rescue personnel to reach them,” Richards said as he presented the award. “And not only on behalf of myself and my staff, and the emergency staff that were there, but on behalf of that gentleman over there, thank you.”
When Vander Galien reunited with that response team in July, EMTs filled in details of that night and described how Wade brought them to the scene, staying by Vander Galien’s side but needing to be forcibly removed after medics arrived and began working.
The room joined Richards in a standing ovation, and among the attendees was Vander Galien, having since been fitted with prosthetic legs and moving with the aid of a walker.
“I’m still at a loss for words, really,” Wade said after the reception. “You could say ‘thank you’ a hundred times to someone, but it doesn’t express your real gratitude, I guess. To the rescue workers, to everyone who helped that night, even in the slightest, I can’t thank them enough.”
“It’s a day-by-day process, especially for this guy, too,” Wade said, pointing to Vander Galien. “But he’s killing it, and he keeps me going too.”
“Same here,” Vander Gallien said.
It was one of five awards presented Thursday to private citizens. Others included a man who took it upon himself to find a shovel and start tossing dirt to prevent a house fire, two to a couple who lent their boat and expertise to officers searching for and then finding a lost child, and a Pardeeville teen who took a woman and her children from the scene of an armed standoff. The officer who first responded to that same standoff was awarded the Medal of Valor.
Two Columbia County deputies and two dispatchers were honored with Life Saving Awards, while two jailers were commended with Problem Solving Awards for their work during the intake and evaluation of an inmate, in which they assisted an inmate in a potentially fatal medical emergency.
A Problem Solving Award was also presented to dispatcher Leonel Ramirez for his part in responding to the Didion explosion.
“One of the things that I noticed several times was Leonel’s calmness,” Richards said, recalling the night of the explosion and the following morning, when Ramirez took the initial call of the incident that involved a dispatch of dozens of fire departments, local, county and state law enforcement and four helicopters among many other first responders and later arriving aid.
“You just can’t train for that; you really can’t,” Richards said. “You can only hope that you and your staff do what is right. Everyone is different. You can’t just throw open the book and look up ‘Explosion’ and go, ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’ One of the corrections we did not have to make in the incident is this gentleman right here with his actions.”