GREENE – In late April, Thomas Akshar stood before an applauding crowd surrounded by fellow firefighter graduates and told them they could accomplish anything themselves. It was a moment of which he had long dreamed.
The 22-year-old Greene Fire Department volunteer successfully completed the New York State Firefighting One Training Course with 20 other classmates and is now a certified interior fireman – despite only having the use of one of his arms.
The course involved a number of state mandated written exams, timed physical trials and hands-on evaluations. Many of the tests performed required participants to complete them without any assistance.
Paralyzed from his right shoulder down, Tom had to rely on his left arm and will power to accomplish such tasks as cutting a ventilation hole through a house’s roof with a chain saw, quickly setting in place a 25 foot ladder, dressing in his full turn out gear – bunker pants, boots, jacket, hood, gloves and helmet – in under 90 seconds and then putting on an oxygen tank.
In total, a firefighter carries with him around 75 pounds of interior equipment and has to be able to confront obstacles in the form of locked doors, blinding smoke, searing flames, unconscious victims and a depleting air supply.
“You have to look at getting things done differently. I kept playing them out in my mind as I watched the others do it. I’m trying to create a plan of action in my head: I do this, then I have to get this done,” said Tom. “Try tying your boots one handed and you’ll see the point. You can’t give up on things. If you can’t get your boots on, then you won’t be going anywhere. It’s that simple.”
On Jan. 2, 2003, Tom was traveling in the front passenger seat with his 14-year-old twin brother in the back seat. Tom’s sister was driving the car when it came over a small hill along County Road 30 in Afton and struck a patch of black ice. His sister lost control of the vehicle and Tom, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle and slammed into a nearby tree ahead of the sliding car. A moment later, the car came up behind him and pinned him against the trunk.