Officer Needs Assistance
My name is Vito J. Vincelli.
I am a disabled Police Officer, and this is my story.
Part One - The Fire
I grew up in Rochester, NY and entered the US Army Military Police in March of 1989. After spending nearly nine years as a Combat MP, I left the Army for civilian law enforcement. In 1998 I was hired as a Police Officer with the Greece Police Department in Rochester, NY. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I was selected to become a Federal Agent with the US Department of Homeland Security. I spent two years with DHS stationed in Washington, DC, and then decided to return to local law enforcement as a Police Officer with the Binghamton Police Department, Binghamton, NY.
On April 25th, 2008, I was working Road Patrol on the nightshift in the northern sector of the City of Binghamton. At 3:30 AM I responded to an arson house fire at 23 Eldredge Street in my sector.
A 28 year-old Monster named Michael Shino had an ongoing feud with one of the families living in this old city house which had been converted into a multi-family apartment building. Shino decided that the best way to get even was to set the building on fire while the residents slept, and so he torched the building, paying special attention to set both the front and rear entrances on fire so that no one could escape. Even the knowledge that women, children, and uninvolved families would be trapped did not deter Shino.
The fire was discovered by Officer Connor Heslin who was working the sector adjacent to mine. As I was right around the corner when Connor called the fire in, I was the second unit on-scene. Both of us would arrive to find the building fully engulfed, with both entrances completely blocked by flames.
I began breaking windows with my baton in order to rescue a Father and Son who were living in a first floor apartment. After, I had to order Zoe Honnick, a pregnant mother, to drop her infant to us from the second story; an action which had to be against every maternal instinct in her body. There was simply no alternative. Connor and I caught the baby and Connor ran him away to safety while SGT Marty Burnett and I talked Zoe Honnick through a hang-jump, and then caught her with the assistance of Officer Jamie Korba.
After, I went to the front of the house where I and other Officers began shouting for any remaining occupants to exit the building. It was then that I would hear Officer Dave Baer, standing to my right, shout “There’s a kid in that window!”. I looked up to see 14 year-old Shalik Banks trapped inside the inferno. All of us immediately began screaming for Shalik to break through the window as we ran toward and up the front porch, the roof of which was completely engulfed in flame. Shalik was able to break through the interior window, but was unable to break out a homemade plexiglas storm-window which had been bolted to the outside.
I ripped off the storm-window and got Shalik out of the building, and then I found that his 9 year-old brother Rodney Smith was behind him.
The next events will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life.
After getting Shalik out and finding Rodney behind him I immediately expected Rodney to follow his brother out. I was less than two feet away from Rodney when the unthinkable happened; Rodney, instead of moving forward and out, backed away into the black smoke pouring from the window and was immediately gone. I stood there in utter disbelief, screaming for Rodney to come back, but he would not. Then, SGT Burnett ordered all of us off of the porch as it appeared to be collapsing.
We stood in front of the building screaming for Rodney to get out. I remember clearly the shock to my mind, one split-second thinking “Everything is gonna work out! We’ve got them!” and the next, the absolute horror of watching Rodney back away into the inferno and disappearing. Dave Baer would later tell me that when I ripped the storm-window off, all the heat from the fire over our heads rushed into the house and hit Rodney directly in the face. Dave stated at that point he actually saw the plastic blinds in the window begin to melt.
Rodney would be trapped inside for another ten minutes before the first Fire Truck arrived, at which point all of us were screaming at the Firefighters that there was a kid in the first floor room. Three brave Firefighters would don airpacks and risk their lives to go into that window and pull Rodney out.
I was the only Officer left at the front of the house, standing in front of Rodney’s Father when the Firefighters pulled Rodney’s lifeless body out. I remember seeing the Father’s eyes widen and then turning and watching as Rodney was dragged across the window sill. I remember the way his limbs splayed as he fell to the porch floor. No Hollywood actor could ever emulate that grotesque scene. I also remember having to hold the Father, a large man, back as he tried to push past me to get to his son, telling him over and over the only thing I could think to say “Let the Firefighters take care of him! It’s the only chance he has!” while I’m calling on the radio for additional Officers to come to the front and help with the Father.
Rodney was rushed to the Emergency Room of Wilson Hospital with no apparent signs of life. Later, I would meet his Family Members there as I was being treated for smoke inhalation. I recall talking to a Doctor and Nurses who would inform me that Rodney had little chance of survival due to the length of time he was trapped inside, and that even if he managed to survive he would likely have severe brain damage. Rodney was transferred to the burn unit of a Syracuse Hospital with severe burns and smoke inhalation.
The first miracle of that night was Connor finding the fire shortly after it was set, allowing us to rescue the occupants. A few minutes more and it is likely that everyone would have perished.
The second miracle of that night is that Rodney survived and, to my knowledge, recovered.
Part Two - The Aftermath
They would begin that very morning when I tried to sleep - nightmares so terrible that they would wake me, soaked in sweat, after just an hour or two of sleep. Trapped inside that house, trying to drag Rodney out. Sometimes it would be my own Family Members trapped in Rodney’s place. Sometimes Rodney and I would be running through a never-ending, twisting basement chased by a monster of pure flame. No matter how the nightmares twisted, they all had the same affect - I no longer sleep very well or very often.
I would become hyper-sensitized to women and children who had been injured or were in danger. It wasn’t long before it began taking a serious toll on me at work. I was forced to seek counseling, something I’d never before had to do in all my years of Law Enforcement. And then, the worst would happen - I would be abandoned by my own Police Department and the very City I worked to protect.
Shortly after being forced to seek counseling, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My symptoms and sleep deprivation became so severe that the Doctor I was sent to by the City of Binghamton ordered me out of work completely. This was the beginning of the end.
Once my personal sick-time was used up, the City informed me that it was controverting my “stress claim” and that I would no longer be paid. True to their word, they cutoff my salary. Shortly thereafter, as I could no longer make my healthcare contributions, they cutoff my healthcare. When my City Water Bill became delinquent, the City of Binghamton cutoff the water supply to my house, and then used that as an excuse to condemn my house and order me to vacate.
I was presented with the Lifesaving Award for actions “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty”, and then I was thrown away like some kind of disposable human being. I would spend a year living on foodstamps, staying with whomever could provide me with a place to sleep. Were it not for the assistance of a very generous friend in the Tech Industry, I would have been homeless.
More than two years have passed and I am still stuck in limbo. The City of Binghamton has fought me every step of the way as they care more about money than the wellbeing of their employees. I’ve been harassed by Police Administrators and Supervisors, and even my friends and co-workers have been ordered to have no contact with me.
At this point, it’s obvious that I can no longer perform the full duties of a Police Officer, and I’ve applied for Disability Retirement.
This has led to the next battle – battling a system called the NYS Retirement System. A system that has unfairly refused to make a determination on my case, and has thus kept me in limbo, completely unable to move on.
Part Three - The State of New York
After having been diagnosed by three separate medical professionals as permanently disabled by PTSD causally related to the arson fire of April 25th, 2008, two of which were examinations by Independent practitioners, the NYS Retirement System demanded that I submit to be examined by their own Independent Psychiatrist. That Psychiatrist rendered an independent diagnosis concurring that I was permanently disabled by PTSD causally related to the arson fire of April 25th, 2008.
Instead of granting me disability retirement, the NYS Retirement System has chosen to ignore the findings of all Doctors, including its own, and has demanded that I submit to yet another independent examination. NYS Retirement feels it has the legal authority to keep me in limbo, hoping to find a Doctor who will render a decision that I am somehow not disabled so that they can deny my claim – a practice commonly referred to as “Doctor Shopping”.
Part Four – Request for Assistance
I beg anyone who reads this story to pass it on to others. A Facebook page regarding my situation has been set up at: Welcome to Facebook
If you believe in your heart that this situation is unfair I urge you to make your thoughts known to the persons who have the ability to correct it:
David A. Paterson
Governor - State of New York
Andrew M. Cuomo
Attorney General - State of New York
Thomas P. DiNapoli
Comptroller - State of New York
NYS Disability Retirement System
Your Individual Representative(s)
Matthew T. Ryan
Mayor - Binghamton, NY