From Rescuing Plane Crash Survivors to Preventing Violence, Letter Carriers Recognized for Heroic Actions
Two dozen mail men and women earn awards for life-saving courage displayed on the job.
When Christine Cambizaca, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, saw a man with a knife approaching a bruised, bloodied and barefoot woman, she knew the perfect hiding spot.
Cambizaca, just one month into the job in Torrington, Conn., let the woman into her mail truck. The man approached and, eventually realizing where his victim was located, tried to get into the vehicle. The novice letter carrier stood in his way, putting herself in harm’s way and distracting him. When a neighbor came out and diverted the man’s attention, she quickly got in her truck and remained safe until police arrived.
She answered the officers’ questions, and continued her route for the day.
“It could have been your sister, it could have been your daughter going through domestic violence,” Cambizaca said at a National Association of Letter Carriers event in Washington honoring the Heroes of the Year. “I will always care about humanity and our community.”
Gerald Soileau, was at his post office in Lafayette, La., when he heard what he thought was an explosion. A small plane had just crashed and was on fire in the facility’s parking lot. Without giving the situation much thought, he sprung into action. The most immediate path was blocked off by the flames, so he went around the building only to be confronted by a locked gate. He pushed and was able to break through it. Solieau was then able to drag the one survivor away from the wreckage, saving him from the crash.
Reflecting the tone from most of the winners at the union’s ceremony, Soileau accepted his award with humility.
“I did what I thought I was supposed to do,” he said.
Soileau was a Hero of the Year for the Central Region in 2020, but was only just honored due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cambizaca was the National Hero of the Year for 2022. They were among the two dozen employees honored at the NALC’s event.
“To be clear, a letter carrier does not do things because they are Superman or Superwoman,” said Paul Barner, NALC’s executive vice president. “Rather, it reflects nature and the edifice of letter carrier craft.”
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy attended the event and thanked the honorees for casting the Postal Service in such a positive light.
“You epitomize the ideal of a public service, and your actions reflect the very best expectations of the Postal Service,” DeJoy said. “I am pleased and honored to be here to give you the well deserved recognition for those who have gone above and beyond normal call of duty.”
The cause for the backlog of awardees was felt by the absence of Jody Kotowski, a 2021 winner from Buffalo. Her colleague, Kevin Bystrak, saw a man who was struggling outside during a significant heat wave. He helped the man get water and spent his lunch break ensuring he was feeling better. He instructed the man to go inside and cool off in his air conditioning, but the man responded his home did not have any. Bystrak posted on his local letter carriers Facebook group about the situation to see if anyone could help.
Kotowksi decided to buy the man an air conditioning unit, but they were sold out at every store in the area. Instead, she gave him one of her own. Kotowski died shortly thereafter from complications related to COVID-19.
Barner noted that letter carriers are often in a position to offer help because they become so embedded in their communities.
“Letter carriers often deliver on the same routes for years or even decades,” he said. “They know the neighbors and they form bonds with residents. As they watch families grow, and the children grow up, they develop a sense of where something is amiss.”
Anthony Picariello, a Humanitarian Award winner, said he, as an Italian-American, was quickly welcomed into the community of South Philadelphia where he delivers mail.
When his daughter was born and needed surgery, he and his wife spent 24 days with her in the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. He later met another letter carrier whose young daughter had passed away. The two teamed up to collect Halloween costumes for kids at the children's hospital where Picariello’s daughter had recovered. Picariello tapped into the network he had established on his route and was flooded by donations from those customers. This past Halloween, the pair needed a U-haul to deliver 1,100 costumes to the hospital.
Dixie Manns, a letter carrier in Indiana, helped personally carry and otherwise save several elderly residents from an apartment building that had caught on fire while she was delivering her route for the day. While quickly explaining the story at the recent ceremony, Manns made sure to emphasize one key detail.
“I do have to say, I never dropped my mail,” she said.