Police and fire heroes honored at City Hall

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Chicago Police officers Jacek Leja and Justin A. Raether talk about the harrowing domestic violence call which led to them receiving the Lambert Tree award, this year’s highest honor for police bravery. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Domestic violence calls are the kind that police officers universally dread. Emotions are running high. They can turn deadly in an instant.

That’s what happened on Oct. 4, 2015, when Police Officers Justin Raether and Jacek Leja rescued two women being held hostage at gunpoint by a boyfriend of one of the women.

They tried to talk the boyfriend down using de-escalation tactics now being reinforced by the Chicago Police Department. A gun battle ensued. The offender was killed. The officers were unhurt.

“He came out, charging us with a gun. We had to engage him. As soon as that was over — it lasted only a couple seconds — we managed to make our way into the apartment and found his girlfriend with serious injuries from being shot and stabbed. But we got her to a hospital, and she survived,” Raether said.

Raether and Leja on Thursday received the Lambert Tree Award for police bravery.

That domestic violence call occurred nearly two months before release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video sent Chicago Police officers into a defensive crouch for fear of being caught on the next YouTube video.

Still, Raether acknowledged that, “as much as I hate to admit it,” he did hesitate for a split-second before firing the fatal shots.

“I don’t think it was due to current events. . . . [W]e go to so many calls so often that are like this that turn out differently that I kind of had it in my head, ‘This will resolve peacefully.’ So I guess I was maybe a little complacent, unfortunately. But luckily, we didn’t get harmed,” Raether said.

“We didn’t second-guess ourselves at all. It was about as cut and dried a situation as you could get. There really wasn’t a lot of gray area. We didn’t really get much run-around from the department either in the investigation. . . . We were confident in what we had done. We’ve kind of been through the ringer a little bit emotionally afterwards. But [made it through] knowing in our hearts that we did what we had to do, and there was no other decision that could be made.”

Leja noted that the call that nearly cost him, his partner and the two women being held hostage, their lives “wasn’t even our call.” They were backing up another officer.

“It happened at approximately 8:30 in the morning on Sunday. We both decided that, `You know what? We should go just in case something happens,’” Leja recalled.

“The female [friend] was crouched on the sidewalk crying, being very hysterical about it. She said, `I just ran out of the apartment. My girlfriend got shot and stabbed.’ At that point, we said, `We’ve got to go in and try to save the woman’s life.’ The unfortunate thing is, we had to take a life. The fortunate thing is, we saved a life.”

Chicago firefighter Joseph Martinelli (right) jokes with his father Robert at City Hall Thursday after receiving the Carter Harrison award, this year’s highest honor for fire bravery. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago firefighter Joseph Martinelli (right) jokes with his father Robert at City Hall Thursday after receiving the Carter Harrison award, this year’s highest honor for fire bravery. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago firefighter Joseph Martinelli received the Carter Harrison Award for fire bravery. He also won the fire bravery award in 2009.

This time, Martinelli is being honored for rescuing a fellow firefighter from a Lincoln Square bowling alley engulfed in flames. He re-entered the building alone after a partial collapse after hearing the mayday call of a colleague trapped inside.

“I heard his activated pass alarm. I called my boss and let him know what I had. And I just sort of scrambled down, found him, and I held onto the hose that he led out and that was our way out. We retreated back to the stairwell. And that’s when another explosion knocked us the rest of the way out of the building,” Martinelli said, as his proud family looked on.

“It felt good to know that everybody was out and safe. It’s what you do when you go to work. We all want to go home safe. But we take risks to save lives. You just sort of do what you are trained to do. . . . The building was coming down. The fireman up there didn’t have much time. The only reason I’m receiving the award vs. anyone else on the fire scene is because I was the closest to the door.”

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