To measure their valor, if such a thing is possible, you would have to see the melted soles on Catherine Taggart's black police shoes or the layer of soot and pain that covered the face of her partner, Kurt O. Tilton.
The pair, assigned to the 7th District, worked in tandem during a four-minute drama that unfolded on the morning of March 22, becoming a human ladder and rescuing five people from a burning building.
Their act of bravery was one of eight feats honored Tuesday during the District's Meritorious Service Awards luncheon, an event that conveys the mantle of hero to firefighters, police officers and corrections officers.
Taggart and Tilton were about to go off duty that morning when they smelled smoke coming from Savannah Terrace in Southeast. They followed their noses, as Taggart said, and found the fire just starting in a three-story building.
A couple, each weighing more than 250 pounds, were at a second-floor window. The man was trying to coax his terrified wife into jumping, but she was unable to move. Tilton, who is six feet tall, braced himself against the wall while Taggart (who barely breaks 5-foot-7) used his hip to hoist herself.
The woman used Taggart as a sliding board, then continued down Tilton's back. The man followed the same path to safety. Once done, Taggart and Tilton spotted a young boy, also on the second floor and apparently prepared to jump. Again, they formed a human ladder.
There were two others to be rescued, including a disabled elderly man. A firefighter couldn't crawl through an opening because of his equipment, so Tilton went in, fumbling around in the dark until he found the man. Taggart also went into the building to rescue a woman, melting her shoes in the process.
In the almost surreal minutes they spent rescuing the five, Taggart and Tilton -- who severely sprained his back -- said they never realized the daring of their efforts. Only later, when talk of their heroics beat them to the station and they were greeted by their commander, Deputy Chief James R. Lee, did it dawn on them.
"I didn't get that sense until I got to the station . . . and the chief said, 'I want these officers commended. Get their names.' I went home and I smiled," said Taggart, 34, a police officer for three years. His son, Andre White, is a police cadet in the 5th District.
For Tilton, 25, an Army veteran who recently joined the police department, the experience seemed to symbolize the mission of the force. "I just did my job. Like everybody else here says, I'm a public servant. I wasn't going to sit in my patrol car while a building burned."
For the first time, the awards luncheon had two sponsors, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the traditional host, and the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The recipients are chosen by the Mayor's Committee for Meritorious Service, which reviews recommendations submitted by advisory boards for each department.
The other winners were:
Police Officer David Queen, 36, who while off-duty Jan. 16 saw a dispute between two men turn into an armed encounter. Queen, a 14-year police veteran, slowly approached, drew his weapon and identified himself as a police officer. The suspect surrendered without an incident.
Sgt. Richard I. Mading, 51, who with a passerby fought off the flames in a burning cab three times before rescuing the occupant. The incident occurred in December 1988. Mading, a 25-year police veteran, spotted the cab, whose driver had crashed moments earlier after a gunman had shot him. The driver was rescued but died later.
Sgt. Lionel G. Millard, 44. In April, a prisoner being treated at D.C. General Hospital disarmed a corrections officer and shot a doctor. The prisoner was spotted outside the hospital by Millard, a 22-year police veteran who was in plainclothes. Millard, who did not return fire for fear of striking someone else, chased the prisoner, who had tried to shoot off his leg irons. Millard cornered the man in a rear loading dock, where he surrendered without further incident.
Firefighters Terrence F. Burke, 40, and Joseph L. Washington Jr, 34. The two men were cited for a "fearless rescue" last November, when they saved two people from a burning fifth-floor apartment without waiting to put on firefighting equipment.
Firefighter Tony D. Sneed, 29. Off-duty and wearing only a T-shirt and pants, Sneed entered a burning house in his neighborhood in May and rescued two people. Sneed crawled on his hands and knees until he found an unconscious 8-year-old girl. He then returned and rescued a man, 47.
Corrections Officer Clarence L. Carter, 44, who disarmed an inmate at the Youth Center in Lorton last December. Carter, a 14-year corrections veteran, stepped between two fighting inmates, one of whom had been stabbed with a 10-inch homemade knife. Before the assailant could deliver a final blow, Carter managed to subdue him.
Corrections Lt. Joseph A. Fogg Sr., 44. Off-duty and driving home on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Fogg saw a car strike a construction sign and ram an unoccupied utility vehicle. The driver spoke briefly with Fogg, headed for the side of the bridge, and jumped. Fogg, a 15-year veteran, managed to grab him by the arm but was unable to pull him back up. As his grip was slipping, a second driver came by and the man was pulled to safety.