16 firefighters honored for rescue during five-alarm fire in Oconomowoc

OCONOMOWOC -- 16 fire officials received the "Medal of Valor" Sunday, September 23rd for their efforts in rescuing Lt. Mike LaVenture of the Oconomowoc Fire Department on July 1st.

LaVenture was trapped on the second floor in a commercial building fire when the fire officials performed their rescue.

The fire broke out on N. Main Street and E. Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Oconomowoc in a building housing businesses and apartments. The fire was elevated to a five-alarm, and over 150 firefighters battled the blaze.

45-year-old Sharon Phillips died in the building.

At Sunday's awards ceremony, Lt. LaVenture recalled the harrowing experience that nearly cost him his life. While fighting the fire, the harness LaVenture had around a victim he was attempting to rescue snapped, and LaVenture fell and became disoriented in the midst of thick smoke and intense heat.

"They were going to find me. I just didn't know if they were going to find me in time," LaVenture said.

Nick Heltemes was part of the crew that saved LaVenture's life. By the time they reached him, LaVenture was unconscious.

"It gives me chills just thinking about it. The difficult part was finding him. He was tucked away in a bathroom trying to save himself, trying to cut back the smoke," LaVenture said.

The rescuers got LaVenture to a window and to safety as quickly as they could.

"As we all say, 'it's our job.' Again, I'm honored to receive (the award), but I would do it again in a heartbeat," Heltemes said.

The crew's special training and effort saved a man who dedicated his life to saving others. LaVenture says he'll be eternally grateful.

"Everybody goes home -- that's our motto. I can't thank these people enough for what they've done for me and my family," LaVenture said.

Eight firefighters were treated for injuries related to battling the blaze, including burns, smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion. LaVenture was placed in a hyperbaric chamber.

Temperatures in the 90s, sweltering sunlight, wind and this summer's ongoing drought conditions made fighting the fire challenging for fire officials.

Fighting this five-alarm fire was further complicated by two grass fires that broke out in the area the same afternoon -- one near I-94 and Highway 67 (near Harley-Davidson) and another near the Target Distribution Center on Valley Road.

The fire officials who received the honor Sunday hail from the Oconomowoc Fire Department, Dousman Fire Department, Stone Bank Fire Department and Lake Country Fire Department.

CLICK HERE for more via the Oconomowoc Fire Department's Facebook page.

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