By Karen Zautyk
American Legion Post 99 on Belgrove Drive was the setting Friday evening for a ceremony honoring Kearny’s Finest of the Finest and Bravest of the Bravest for 2014.
Police Officer of the Year is Sgt. Paul Bershefski.
Firefighter of the Year is Jason McCabe.
Last week’s program was only the first of several community ceremonies that will spotlight the duo.
As Fire Chief Steve Dyl told the audience in the Legion hall, for both police and firefighters, “It’s all about rising to the challenge.”
In McCabe’s case, the challenge included a particularly hazardous rescue of a man trapped in a Schuyler Ave. fire in February 2014. He and two other firefighters entered the burning home searching for the victim who they had been told was somewhere in the basement. That basement turned out to be a hazard in itself — with narrow hallways, low ceilings and doorways less than 6-feet high.
The firefighters used a thermal-imaging camera to find the man, who was trapped in a bedroom. McCabe was the one who located him. Then they had to get the victim out, through the same cramped space. “Help couldn’t get to them, and they were running out of air,” Dyl recalled. But, against the odds, they succeeded in the rescue. “We very well could have had three Firefighters of the Year,” the chief noted. But the Meritorious Acts Review Board chose McCabe.
And it’s safe to say, the other two don’t begrudge it at all. Heroes are like that.
McCabe, who joined the KFD in February 1999, is assigned to Engine 1 on Davis Ave., the department’s primary mutual aid company. He has previously been cited for performing life-saving CPR and for water rescues in the Passaic River. Recently, he completed training for the KPD’s Swift Water Rescue Team.
He has also volunteered his time on humanitarian aid missions, to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, as well as tornado victims in Missouri. And, Dyl noted, “he spent countless hours at the Jersey Shore after Sandy,” helping people rebuild their homes. He also built playgrounds as part of the Sandy Ground project, launched to honor the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
“He reminds me of the Energizer Bunny,” Dyl said.
Prior to becoming a fireman (following in the footsteps of his father, Joseph, who had been a battalion chief in Jersey City), McCabe served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1991 to ‘95, with deployments to Somalia, Okinawa, Korea and the Mediterranean.
He and his wife, Kristin, have three children: daughters Tyler, 17, and Lindsay, 13, and son Eric, 8.
In an interview prior to the awards ceremony, Dyl had cited McCabe’s “character and work ethic.” The chief told us, “He gives you 110%. When you’re going into a difficult situation, he’s the guy you want to have with you.”
Police Chief John Dowie expressed similar sentiments at the awards event, noting that the police officers and firefighters who receive the honor are the ones “who go above and beyond, time and again.”
Police Officer of the Year Sgt. Paul (“Bear”) Bershefski joined the KPD in 2005, served in the trouble-shooting patrol division and was promoted to sergeant in May 2012. He is a member of the Tactical Services Unit and a certified firearms instructor.
Over the years, Dowie noted, he has received awards for participation in narcotics arrests and in 2009 was recognized by the Valor Committee after, while off-duty, he saved the life of a man who had been choking to death.
He also has received the Meritorious Service Award, two Certificates of Merit and two Unit Citations.
Like McCabe, Bershefski was recognized for his overall job performance in 2014, but he also had a particularly notable incident on his record. And it occurred at the very start of the year, on New Year’s Day 2014.
At 7 a.m., a “known gang member from Newark,” armed with a .45, invaded a Tappan St. residence, terrorized, assaulted and robbed the family and then fled in their Lexis, after taking the keys. He lost control of the car on Devon St., abandoned it and started running.
It was Bershefski who spotted the suspect and attempted to detain him at Central and Passaic Aves., at the border of Kearny and East Newark. But the thug kept running, heading across the Clay St. Bridge. with the officer in foot pursuit.
Bershefski closed the distance and ordered him to freeze. At which point, the man apparently drew the gun from his waistband — and threw it into the Passaic. (All this could have ended much differently.)
He continued running, with Bershefski following him to an abandoned lot on the Newark side of the river. Police surrounded the site and the suspect was located and taken into custody. Also located on the property was ammo for a .45.
Bershefski’s handling of the situation was “just one of his many meritorious acts,” Dowie noted.
As for community service, the sergeant was an original organizer of Kearny’s Police Unity Tour Bicycle Team. He still rides in the yearly event, which now attracts nearly 2,000 officers from across the U.S. Participants cycle to the Police Memorial in Washington, D.C., to raise money for the families of officers killed in the line of duty. They now collect more than $1 million annually.
Bershefski and his wife, Heather, have two sons: Patrick, 9, and Brendan, 5. His father, Paul, is a retired N.J. State Police lieutenant, and his mother, Patricia, is a retired Harrison/ Kearny schoolteacher.
Bershefski grew up in Harrison, attended Queen of Peace High School, and majored in sociology and criminology at Montclair State University. In 2004, after graduating from the Essex County Police Academy, he joined the Harrison PD. But he transferred to Kearny early the following year.
“I stole him from Harrison,” Dowie said. “He’s the best thing I’ve ever stolen.”