A Maine letter carrier who pulled an elderly woman in flames from her burning apartment building along his postal route, then alerted other residents to flee, was named this week as National Hero of the Year by the 300,000-member National Association of Letter Carriers.

Wayne Viger, 55, a letter carrier in Lewiston, Maine, smelled smoke at an apartment building as he was on his route on April 3, 2006. Checking more closely, the 30-year veteran carrier heard a smoke alarm sounding inside, and then noticed smoke pouring through cracks in the windows and door of a ground floor apartment.

NALC President William H. Young will present the National Hero of the Year award to Viger of Turner, Maine, and five other awards at a special ceremony on Thursday, September 20, at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The letter carrier pushed open the door to find an elderly woman with her clothes aflame and her hair singed by the fire. He pulled the woman outside and extinguished her burning clothing. Then he reentered the building to check on other residents as he climbed to the second and third floors, knocking loudly on apartment doors and shouting to alert residents to the danger. When the fire department arrived, the sooty and smoke-saturated mail carrier returned to his post office.

The postal union’s annual National Humanitarian of the Year award will be presented to Gary Fitch of Maplewood, Minnesota, a member of NALC Branch 28 of St. Paul, Minnesota, who rode 2,800 miles across the nation on his bike this year to NALC Headquarters in Washington to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, NALC’s national charity, and collect Letters of Hope from supporters.

The Letters of Hope will be scanned on compact discs and launched into space on a future shuttle mission for upcoming generations to read. Fitch, 55, was joined on his daily journey by local NALC branches and letter carriers who came out in droves to show Gary their support and to honor his commitment to MDA.

In announcing the awards, Young praised the 2007 winners as worthy additions to the long list of letter carriers who have performed heroic and humanitarian acts throughout the union’s history.

“As they walk and ride through every neighborhood in America every day, letter carriers are often the first on the scene when tragedy strikes,” Young said. “These men and women follow in the tradition of coming to the aid of those in need often at risk of personal danger.”

A special Carrier Alert Rescue Award will be presented to Melvin (Gene) Kahl of Pensacola, Florida, whose suspecting mind about mail piling up saved an elderly man whose wife had passed away in the home.

Kahl, 65, marked the family’s car tire with chalk so that he could judge whether it had moved when he returned. Finding the mark undisturbed two days later, the 21-year veteran carrier knocked on the door. Although he could hear someone inside, he received no response. When police arrived, they discovered the husband dehydrated and too weak to move, holding the hand of his deceased wife, singing hymns to her. Three regional heroes will also be honored at the September 20 event:

Nathaniel Roberson of McDonough, Georgia, was named Eastern Region Hero. On his way to work on June 1, 2006, Roberson, 55, realized that a Henry County police officer was having trouble subduing a man who had become unruly during a traffic stop. Roberson, who delivers mail in East Point, Georgia, stopped to see if he could help. As he drew closer, he saw blood was dripping from bite marks on the officer’s arms and the driver was trying to grab the policeman’s pistol. Roberson helped wrestle the man to the ground, and kept the suspect’s arms pinned behind him until backup arrived.

Debra Hamilton of Chicago, a member of NALC Chicago Branch 11, was named Central Region Hero for administering CPR to an unconscious traffic victim in January 2006 as she was on her way to work delivering mail in Chicago’s Hyde Park section. When no pulse was detected, Hamilton, 37, ran to the trunk of her car and retrieved a pair of sweat pants and her bagged lunch. The carrier tucked the pants under the woman’s neck in order to clear the airway and used a sandwich bag from her lunch to create a protective barrier. As she administered CPR, the woman regained consciousness. Hamilton stayed with the victim until an emergency team arrived.

Pattie Arismendez of Bakersfield, California, a member of NALC Branch 782 in Bakersfield, was named Western Region Hero. Arismendez, 43, was driving on her route when she noticed a toddler wandering onto a roadway ahead while cars continued to whiz by. The carrier stopped her vehicle, jumped out, and ran to the baby standing in the street. Arismendez swept the child up in her arms and carried the little girl back to the security of her LLV. After the child was reunited with her mother who lived nearby, Arismendez returned to delivering mail on her route.

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