Army National Guard leadership honored a New York soldier with the Army’s highest award for bravery outside of a combat zone, after he died saving four people from a massive apartment fire that killed 13 others in the Bronx late last year.
On Dec. 28, Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah was credited with saving four lives over the course of three runs through a burning building, before perishing on his fourth attempt.
At a Friday ceremony at Fordham University for Mensah’s family, he was posthumously honored with two medals for valor: one from the Army, and another from the state of New York.
Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, presented the Army's Soldier's Medal to Kwabena Mensah, the soldier’s father, according to an Army press release.
"Difficult though it may be, please think of this ceremony as an opportunity not to mourn, but to celebrate Private First Class Mensah, an unselfish soldier of incredible bravery, who sacrificed his own life to save several others, and while attempting to save more," Kadavy said during the ceremony.
“If any of us could change the circumstances that bring us together this morning, we certainly would do so,” he added.
Mensah’s family said his lifelong dream was to join the military.
"He fulfilled his dream, what he wanted to do," his father said. "He was proud of being [in] the American military. He was so proud of that."
Secretary of the Army Mark Esper approved the award to recognize Mensah’s sacrifice on Jan. 1.
Fire department investigators say the blaze was started by a child playing with a gas stove. The fire spread quickly after the child's family escaped because they failed to close the apartment door behind them, according to fire department investigators.
“After quickly escaping the fire, Private First Class Mensah could have remained safely outside,” Kadavy said. “But, knowing that residents were still inside, it was not in his nature to stand by without doing whatever he could to help them escape the deadly inferno that was raging through their homes.”
Firefighters who discovered Mensah’s remains believed he was still seeking to rescue people when he succumbed to the flames, according to statements provided to New York Army National Guard officials.
"Today is about the recognition of a family's sacrifice and the military recognizing their own," said Command Sgt. Maj. Javier Lugo of the 104th Military Police Battalion, the higher headquarters of Mensah's intended unit. "This is the highest non-combat award given by the U.S. Army for going above and beyond the call of duty to save another person's life."
The New York State Medal for Valor was also presented to the Mensah family by Richard White, New York State’s deputy secretary for public safety, on behalf of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Mensah’s family immigrated to the United States from Ghana as permanent legal residents. Emmanuel Mensah became a naturalized citizen on Sept. 21.
“He came to exemplify what is best about his adopted country and Ghana, his country of origin,” White said. “What that means is that when others would run from the inferno, our Pfc. Mensah ran into the blaze.”
Mensah enlisted in the New York Army National Guard in December 2016 and had recently completed training to serve as a wheeled vehicle mechanic. He was slated to begin drilling with the New York Army National Guard's 107th Military Police Company at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn in January.
Mensah was buried with full military honors Saturday at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
“It’s given we, the family members, some peace and some joy and hope that even though we have lost him physically, his memory still lives on,” Gloria Addo Nuamah, his sister, said. “People will remember him for this bravery and that’s what this ceremony stands for me.”