The Medal of Valor recognizes public safety officers who risk their own safety to save or protect others.
WASHINGTON — The incident started with a search for a colleague who went missing in Florida's Osceola County Jail.
It ended when Reeshemah Taylor lunged at an inmate holding a gun to her head, throwing herself on top of her much larger attacker, disarming him and sparing countless lives in the process.
Officials later said the inmate's plan that summer day in 2009 was clear: Walk out of the jail dressed as an officer and shoot anyone who got in his way.
That deadly scenario never played out, and Taylor on Wednesday received the Medal of Valor for her role in averting it, along with 17 other police officers, firefighters and public safety officers granted the nation's highest honor for risking their own safety to save or protect others.
"You all share — you're all crazy, God love you — you all share a selflessness that's not easy to explain, a commitment to your fellow man that's rare, a bravery that inspires," said Vice President Joe Biden, his voice gruff with emotion.
When Taylor, a corrections officer, walked into the room of the jail's medical unit, she encountered a violent inmate serving three life sentences with no parole — a gang member with nothing to lose. The inmate had taken her fellow officer hostage, changed into the officer's uniform and armed himself with the guard's fully loaded semi-automatic handgun, aiming it squarely at Taylor's head.
In a flash, she grabbed the gun with both hands and pushed it to the side while thrusting her knee into the inmate's groin. He fell to the ground, dropping the weapon. That's when Taylor jumped on top of him, putting him into a headlock while scissoring his legs with hers to keep him from getting up. With her spare hand, she grabbed her radio and help was on the way.
That fearlessness in the face of danger was celebrated Wednesday as Biden draped the medals, suspended from purple- and yellow-striped ribbons, around the recipients' necks. At his side stood Attorney General Eric Holder, who thanked them for standing on the front lines against crime, terrorism and threats to American communities.
There were more tears than smiles at the somber, bittersweet ceremony. Four of the recipients died in the line of duty, their actions remembered by family members and friends. Biden recalled the death of his own wife and daughter in a car accident, and he consoled the spouses and colleagues who accepted the awards on behalf of the fallen officers.
"To me, this is personal," Biden said. "You're the heart, the soul and the spine of this nation. And the really sad thing is it takes an extraordinary act for the community to rise up and recognize what you do."
New York City firefighter Peter Demontreux was rescuing a man from a burning apartment when an entire floor of the building exploded. Demontreux was set on fire, but managed to get the man safely onto an aerial ladder before diving out of the building. Both men survived, though Demontreux was badly burned.
Among the others honored were Cameron Justus and William Stiltner, two sheriff's deputies in Virginia who died while trying to save fellow officers from a sniper.
In Washington state's Kitsap County, Deputy Sheriff Krista McDonald tried to rescue two officers shot by an armed man they had spotted with a missing 13-year-old girl. McDonald shot the hostage-taker in the leg, but he killed the young girl and then himself.
"I have a theory that there's a fine line between bravery and stupidity," McDonald said after receiving the medal. "We put ourselves out there never knowing who's going to want to do us harm, or if it's the day that we might not come home."
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