7-year-old girl, Twinsburg officer among local heroes honored

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AKRON, Ohio (WJW)– The Greater Akron and Mahoning Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross on Thursday honored six area residents, whose acts over the past year rose above the call of duty, helping to save the lives of others.

Among them was Joanne White, of Youngstown. The senior spent her time while staying at home through the pandemic sewing more than 1,300 facemasks.

The masks given away with the help of the Youngstown Police Department to those who need them. White was moved by the story of a local family of six that was sharing one mask.

Also among the Acts of Courage Award recipients was 7-year-old Natalie Weisler, of New Franklin, who awoke to watch television while the rest of her family was sleeping. Weisler said she heard a noise from the kitchen that she thought was pots and pans crashing. She discovered it was the sound of glass breaking from a fire that was raging outside on the home’s breezeway.

The quick-thinking youngster raced to her brother’s room and to her parents’ bedroom to wake them up and help get her family to safety.

Another honoree was Dustin Nist, a Kent State University Student who was driving home when he witnessed a car leave the road and plunge into the Tuscarawas River. Nist swam across the river to rescue the occupants from the partially submerged car.

Akron teacher Clarissa Gagne was also recognized for helping to save the life of a neighbor. Gagne said she was teaching remotely from her Tallmadge home when she went outside and witnessed her neighbor collapse in her driveway.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Gagne said she had another neighbor who was driving by to call 911. After detecting that the neighbor had no pulse, she started CPR. She continued giving compressions until the neighbor opened her eyes before paramedics arrived.

Also recognized were Richard Santucci and Jim Shepherd. They were at work in Austintown when they also witnessed a coworker collapse. Starting CPR, the two men also managed to restore a heartbeat and save the life of their coworker.

The final recipient was Twinsburg Police Officer Yamil Encarnacion.

Encarnacion was on duty on Aug. 29 when he was radioed about a rollover crash on Interstate 480.

When he arrived, he said the driver of the car was already out with one of her two children. But a 4-year-old was still trapped in the badly-damaged car. Dash camera and body-worn camera video showed Encarnacion wasting no time trying to free the trapped girl from the wreckage

“Once I heard that there was a little girl trapped, that to me was a trigger that we needed to get her. One of the good Samaritans that had stopped initially kept saying she’s not breathing or she’s turning blue, and that to me was a sense of urgency,” Encarnacion said.

While inside the wreckage trying to free the girl, Encarnacion said he heard the mother call out the girl’s name, which was the same as his own daughter’s.

“All I could think of was my own kid and I wanted to get her out. I wanted to get her out immediately. I wanted to make sure she was OK and she was safe,” Encarnacion said.

The officer said he used brute strength to pry the child’s car seat from the wreckage, severely injuring a quadricep muscle in his own leg in the process.

“It’s chaotic. I was overwhelmed by the emotion of it. It had to be scary for her. Everybody was just gathered and it was just overwhelming at the moment,” Encarnacion said.

None of those honored on Thursday said they feel like they are heroes.

“I don’t feel like a hero. I just did what anybody would do. I did what was needed at that time,” Gagne said.

“When you are faced with a situation like that, you don’t hesitate. Hesitation takes time,” Encarnacion said.

“It’s a no brainer, you know. Somebody is in need. I think the human response is to respond,” Santucci said.

“A lot of those individuals are very humble. They would never say they are a hero. And they are even shocked when we say, ‘How do you react when someone calls you a hero?'” said Rahel Teledgy, executive director of the Greater Akron and Mahoning Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Thursday’s 25th annual Acts of Courage Awards were presented during a virtual ceremony.

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