John Bokros, then a volunteer with the Westerville Division of Fire, was working his maintenance job at Otterbein College on April 7, 1976, when a fire broke out in Cochran Hall.
Nineteen-year-old Karen Sgarro was napping in her dorm when she awoke to screams from outside. As she looked out her window, other students yelled at Sgarro to exit the building.
She made her way to a stairwell but found herself trapped on the second floor.
Bokros heard her screams through a window. He tried to gain entry through a front door but was pushed back by smoke.
When he returned to the building with a ladder, Sgarro had disappeared from the window. Overcome with smoke, she had collapsed on the floor.
Bokros carried her from the building and resuscitated her. She spent 18 days in Grant Hospital, 16 in the intensive care unit. Bokros also was treated for smoke inhalation.
Sgarro, now Karen Gregory, hadn't seen Bokros since the day he rescued her. She returned to Westerville Friday, June 29 to help celebrate Bokros' retirement from the city's fire division.
"I'm here today because of Chief Bokros," Gregory said.
After 38 years with the Westerville Division of Fire, during which he worked his way up from volunteer to part-time firefighter to full-time firefighter and then to chief fire marshal, Bokros will retire today, July 5.
Despite his long career with the division, Bokros said, he never had any real notion of becoming a firefighter before he signed up for a volunteer class with the division.
"I can remember exactly how it started. I had a go-nowhere job," Bokros said. "One evening, I walked down to the fire station -- well, the fire station/police station back then -- and I thought I could be a firefighter or a policeman."
The receptionist at the station brought a firefighter out to speak with Bokros. That firefighter encouraged him to sign up for the volunteer course.
Bokros took the course and began volunteering with the division. In 1974, he was hired on a part-time basis, and in 1979, he was promoted to full time.
A Westerville native, Bokros said he has loved spending his career serving the city.
"I haven't really wanted to go anywhere else," Bokros said. "The ability to help people, to make a positive impact (is gratifying). ... In the fire service, we're paid for doing the right thing."
With the fire division, Bokros has spent the majority of his career in fire prevention, and working with community groups and children on fire safety is one of Bokros' top priorities.
"You've got to look for any way you can to get your message of fire safety out. You can't wait," Bokros said. "It may be that the one interaction with the one child at the one block party is what makes a difference."
Working on fire safety for the division, Bokros has helped to develop such programs as the Fire Experience, which gives resident a one-day, inside look at the fire division; the Safety Bunch, a puppet crew that teaches children about fire safety; the Citizens Fire Academy; and the Citizens Auxiliary Resource Team, a volunteer group that has donated 78,000 hours helping the fire division since it started more than 10 years ago.
Over the years, Bokros, 60, has earned many awards for his service. He was Westerville's city employee of the year in 2001; he was inducted into the Westerville South High School Alumni Hall of Fame in 2002; he was Franklin County firefighter of the year in 2007; and he earned the Box 15 Club Larry Parlett Distinguished Fire Service Award in 2007, the Westerville Sunrise Rotary Service Above Self Award in 2009 and the Knights of Columbus Blue Coat Award from the Columbus Diocese earlier this year.
One of the biggest changes Bokros said he's seen in his career is the involvement of the fire division in the community. More and more, he said, the fire division is out talking to residents at block parties, festivals and other community events.
"It used to be that you'd only see the firefighters out on calls. Now we really hit the streets," he said. "We're more than emergency responders; we're part of the community."
As members of the fire division and the community celebrated Bokros' retirement and service to the city June 29, Bokros said he is the one who is thankful for all the city has given him.
"The people of the city have taken care of my family," he said. "It's just amazing how much this city cares."
Bokros and his wife, Linda, have raised three children in Westerville: Mike, Dan and Paige.
Bokros said he has no definite plans for his retirement.
While he's finishing his career with the city, Bokros said, he expects to find some other ways to stay involved with serving the community.
"There are so many great opportunities in this town and so many organizations to be involved with that I'm sure I will find myself drifting (to one)," Bokros said.