ROCKVILLE, Md. — Montgomery County’s first responders were recognized for their heroism Friday at the 43rd Annual Public Safety Awards.
The luncheon, organized by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, honored first responders who saved lives during the Flower Branch Apartment explosion and fire, and who successfully captured a man on a deadly shooting spree in Montgomery County.
Flower Branch Apartment fire
Officer Jeffrey Hughes was off duty, assisting an on-duty officer with a routine arrest not far from the Flower Branch Apartment complex when they both heard, and felt, a loud boom.
“It shook our cars … he and I just looked at each other, like, ‘what the heck is that?'” Hughes said.
When he got to the scene, he said it was unreal. A massive fire and a building had partially collapsed. Getting to people inside was nearly impossible, since the building had shifted so much that the door stuck in its frame.
Hughes had a special connection to the scene: it’s where he worked off-duty as a security officer. He knew many of the residents by sight. He was in contact with the property manager, and she was asking about her uncle, Saul Paniagua, wondering if he was in the apartment when the blast occurred.
As Hughes recalled the story, he choked up. He parked next to Paniagua’s car every time he worked security. He knew his car well.
“I’m on the phone with her and I see his Honda Pilot, and she’s asking me, ‘Is he home, is he home?’ and I don’t know how to tell her,” his said as his voice broke. Paniagua was later identified as one of the seven people who died in the explosion and fire.
Hughes also remembered that he was scheduled to work at 8 p.m. the night of the fire, but was delayed due to heavy traffic.
“Had I gotten there at 8 p.m., I probably would have been in the office to clock out in between shifts when the building blew up,” he said.
Montgomery County Firefighter David Braun has a recollection similar to Hughes’: he wondered if what he was seeing was real.
“It looked like the sky was cracking open, billowing smoke,” Braun said.
Like Hughes, Braun arrived within the first 10 minutes of the explosion and fire.
“There were people hanging from windows. You could see soot around people’s mouths; they were coughing, they were having a hard time breathing, they were dizzy,” he recalled.
Aside from fighting the fire, Braun searched the buildings for survivors and victims.
“I remember seeing a crib. I remember seeing some debris over the top of that crib and I remember thinking, ‘please don’t let there be a child under that debris,'” he said. There wasn’t, but there were dozens of shocked and injured people to take care of that night.
It’s a dangerous, exhausting job, and Braun said the rewards come when you can see how you’ve helped people. With a broad smile he said, “It’s the best job in the world.”
Montgomery Mall shooting
On May 6, 2016, Montgomery County Police Officer David Kocevar was on a theft detail at Montgomery Mall. He was filling out some paperwork when he heard a series of shots.
“I grabbed my police radio and took off running toward where the shots were coming from,” Kocevar said.
Kocevar could see the suspect, Eulalio Tordil, had jumped into a car and was already speeding from the scene. He got on the radio to relay the make and model of the car, then turned to the victims, two of whom would survive.
Kocevar’s voice has just a hint of a tremor as he recalled that scene.
“At that point your training kicks in and you do what you have to do,” he said.
He couldn’t know it then, but Kocevar was pursuing a man who had already killed his wife in Prince George’s County, and would continue on a shooting spree that gripped the region as the shooter raced from Montgomery Mall to another shopping center in Aspen Hill where he was finally caught.
Appreciative of Friday’s recognition of his role in the case, Kocevar said what he did on that day in May is what he was trained to do.
“This is what I signed up for. This is the life I chose, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.