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New York soldier killed in fire rescue honored with 2 valor awards

Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, presents Kwabena O. Mensah, father of Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah, with the Soldier's Medal, the Army's top award for valor outside of combat during a ceremony Feb. 16, 2018, at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. (HARLEY JELIS/U.S. ARMY NATIONAL GUARD)

A soldier who died while helping people escape an apartment fire in New York City that claimed 12 lives was honored at a ceremony where military and state officials presented his family with two valor medals.

Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah is credited with saving four lives in the massive apartment fire in the Bronx on Dec. 28, the city’s deadliest in a quarter of century. He entered the burning building at least four times before being overcome by smoke.

For his bravery, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for valor outside of combat, and the New York State Medal for Valor. Both awards were presented at Fordham University in the Bronx on Friday, the Army said in a statement that quoted officials and family members at the event.

Mensah could have remained safely outside after first escaping the fire himself, but “it was not in his nature to stand by without doing whatever he could to help,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, who presented the military medal to Mensah’s father.

The secretary of the Army approved the award days after the fire, whose victims included five children. The soldier, a wheeled vehicle mechanic, was home after completing advanced initial training at the Army’s ordnance school in Fort Lee, Va.

Mensah wrote at length about protecting people and saving lives in an essay submitted during his training, said Command Sgt. Maj. Patricio Cardona Vega of the 16th Ordnance Battalion, in a statement last month.

The awards ceremony offered an occasion not to mourn his death, but to celebrate “an unselfish soldier of incredible bravery,” Kadavy said.

“The Soldier’s Medal is an award that no one sets out to receive,” he said. “If any of us could change the circumstances that bring us together this morning, we certainly would.”

The 26-year-old had immigrated from Ghana in 2012, and his father said he had dreamed of serving in the military.

“He fulfilled his dream, what he wanted to do,” said Kwabena Mensah, the soldier’s father. “He was proud of being (in) the American military. He was so proud of that.”

The New York Times reported that he had initially tried to join the Marines shortly after immigrating, but his father wanted him to pursue an education instead. Still, the younger Mensah persisted and eventually joined the Army National Guard.

After joining as a permanent legal resident in late 2016, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen at a military base in Georgia last fall. He was slated to begin drilling with a Brooklyn-based military police unit in January.

The young immigrant represented the best of both his adopted country and his homeland, said Richard White, New York’s deputy secretary for public safety, who presented the soldier’s family with the state’s valor medal on behalf of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“When others would run from the inferno, our Pfc. Mensah ran into the blaze,” White said.

The fire was started by a young boy playing with a gas stove. It spread rapidly through the five-story building after the boy’s family fled the apartment, leaving the door open behind them.

Mensah was asleep when it broke out. After escaping, he braved the fire several times to bring out a family that included four children.

From where firefighters discovered his body, officials believe he was trying to rescue more people.

Besides receiving the medals for valor, Mensah has gotten recognition from other quarters.

Late last month, officials said a street corner near the site of the fire would be named in his honor. At his funeral on Saturday, members of the city’s fire department lined the street when his flag-draped coffin was brought into the church where crowds of mourners packed the pews, local media reported.

Such recognition has given the family “some peace and some joy and hope” to know that his memory will live on after his death, his sister Gloria Addo Nuamah said in a military news release about the ceremony.

“People will remember him for this bravery,” she said.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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