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By Maria Zate
July 23, 2018
The sky was a serene blue that morning of October 2016 in Gouverneur, New York. Form carpenter Joe Laudig looked up and saw smoke pouring out of a chimney in town on the other end of the William Street Bridge where he was working with a crew.
Across the Oswegatchie River, a man was stranded at the top story of a wood-shingled house engulfed in flames, screaming for help.
“I realized the house was on fire,” said Laudig, 52, who works for Cicero-based Vector Construction. He and a civil engineer ran across the bridge to the burning structure. “I turned around and yelled ‘get a ladder’ to the crew on the bridge, but even then I knew it was too far.”
The engineer pointed to an excavator nearby. Without hesitation, Laudig ran over and jumped into the yellow Komatsu bucket truck and started driving it toward the fire. “It wasn’t my excavator, but I’ve had experience operating them,” he said.
He doesn’t remember if he felt scared as he headed toward the fire. However, he does recall “asking the good Lord to help me get that man out of the house.”
A video taken by a neighbor shows Laudig driving the Komatsu on a quiet residential street and climbing up the edge of a grassy lawn. Sirens can be heard in the distance as he expertly maneuvers the machine’s arm as close to the house as possible, avoiding the flames. The bucket arm rises up to the top-story window, now barely visible through the thick smoke. Moments later the arm lowers to the ground, and you can see a young man jumping out of the bucket unharmed. Laudig completes the rescue in just one minute and backs the Komatsu away from the site before the fire trucks arrive.
After the rescue, crew members congratulated him with high-fives and pats on the back, calling him a hero. Local and national media shared the story of the dramatic event.
Laudig brushes aside the hero label: “It was just about being in the right place at the right time.”
In his 25 years as a form carpenter on bridges, there was never a time he had to rescue anyone. That is until that day in Gouverneur.
Staying calm in challenging situations is second nature for Laudig, who enjoys the demands of his work—doing form carpentry for concrete bridges. He’s been involved in more than 60 bridge projects across upstate New York and says his favorite has been rebuilding the 150-foot tall Hoxie Gorge Bridge in Marathon, NY.
“I really liked that bridge because it was so tall,” he said, adding that working at 150 feet “is no different to me than working on the ground.”
When he started out, back in 1986, he did residential building. Later, however, he switched to bridge building as he could earn better pay.
“I worked my way up, learning everything on the job,” he added.
When he’s off the clock, Laudig can’t seem to stop working. His “side jobs” include helping farmers prepare cows for slaughter. He knows quite a bit about cows from growing up on his family’s dairy farm in Willet, NY, with six siblings. He milked his first cow at age 12.
Laudig recently met up with his 82-year-old father and a brother to attend the 30th Annual Farm Bureau Auction in Whitney Point. Although he said he was there “mostly for socializing,” a used saw mill caught his eye.
The saw would come in handy for cutting down trees on his property to create a pasture for his wife’s horses, he explained. He and Catrena, his second wife, got married last summer and now live in Locke, NY. He also plans to build two horse carts—a two-seater for himself and Catrena, and the other for his step-daughter and her horse.
Laudig’s eldest daughter (from his first marriage), Lindy Canniff, describes her dad as a hero not only for saving the man from a burning house but also for spending 30 years in construction, “working hard to provide for our family.” Laudig also has two other daughters, Kimberly and Abigail, also from his first marriage.
“He doesn’t think of himself as a hero,” Lindy said, “but he is to a lot of people.”
Some heroes sink a winning shot at the buzzer or throw the touchdown pass to win the game with time running out. Others put their lives on the line in battle, fight fires or enforce the law. Other types of heroes are less prominent, but just as important. Whoever your hero, and whatever "hero" means to you, we want to hear about it.
Take this opportunity to recognize (and celebrate!) the incredible people in your life. Nominate your Hard Hat Hero today!
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