EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Retired Ventnor firefighter Ernie Tarsitano doesn’t consider himself a hero.

Tarsitano, of Galloway Township, only made one decision July 26: to go back.

After crawling on his hands and knees for at least 4 feet in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers to save a man yelling for help in a burning home in Galloway, he had to leave because the smoke knocked him out of the building.

Even though Tarsitano was choking and vomiting from the smoke, he looked down at the rubber band bracelet on his right wrist that read, “What Would Jesus Do” and said to himself, “That’s my sign. I’ve got to go back.”

Tarsitano, 61, chose to crawl back into the burning home. He rescued Roderick Cormier, then 72.

Tarsitano was one of 12 firefighters honored Wednesday in front of about 175 people during the 28th annual Harold J. “Whitey” Swartz Valor Awards and Service Recognition ceremony held during the Atlantic County Firefighters’ Association meeting at the Anthony “Tony” Canale Training Center.

When Tarsitano went back into one of the bungalows at the Country Motel on his hands and knees a second time, he told Cormier to keep yelling because he could not see through the smoke. He also had to hold his breath the entire time he was in the house.

Tarsitano estimates he crawled about 10 feet, reached out and grabbed Cormier. Then, Tarsitano stood up and started backing up while dragging the limp and heavy Cormier until they were both outside the door.

“About 15 to 20 seconds later, the place exploded,” Tarsitano said.

Cormier was semiconscious by the time he was out of house. Tarsitano tried to revive him by splashing water on his face, but the heat from the fire made the water hot.

Frank Formica was one of six Atlantic County freeholders in attendance during the valor awards. The freeholders gave Tarsitano an official citation for his bravery.

Formica has known Tarsitano for 30 years. They both attend Beacon Evangelical Free Church in Galloway, but Formica did not know all the details of Tarsitano’s rescue until he was sitting in the audience Wednesday like everyone else.

“He has always had the reputation of being a tremendous, sacrificing individual,” Formica said. “He is also a humble individual. He wouldn’t tell everyone about what he did.”

Tarsitano was a firefighter for 30 years, but he never had an experience like his July rescue while on the job. It was the closest he ever came to not making it out of a fire.

Prior to Tarsitano receiving his award, Bayview Volunteer Fire Company Assistant Chief Scott J. Winneberger said Tarsitano suffered from smoke inhalation and cuts on his knees from crawling on debris. He was treated by medical personnel at the scene, but he chose not to visit a hospital after the rescue.

“I had to go get my daughter at cheerleading. It was her first cheerleading practice at Holy Spirit,” Tarsitano said.

The day after the rescue, Tarsitano visited Beacon and told Senior Pastor Pete Nelson he did not deserve the accolades he was receiving.

“That was your pre-destiny as a fireman. All those years, you have been training, but it never happened at your job, but you were his (Cormier’s) guardian angel that day,” Nelson said.

Staff Writer

Twenty years as a staff writer in the features department, specializing in entertainment and the arts at The Press of Atlantic City.

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