For emergency responders around the country, the memory of 9-11 in 2001 is still fresh in their minds years after. For Vic Mercaldo of Valparaiso, he remembers the moment he decided to travel to New York City and the sleepless days at Ground Zero that followed.
“I had enough, I said to myself I need to be there,” Mercaldo said. “I literally packed my gear, jumped in my vehicle and went to N.Y. I wasn’t there five minutes out of the subway and bystanders were grabbing my gear. I spent five days on the pile down there. Something that no one ever needs to see, ever.”
Looking back on that time, Mercaldo, a firefighter and paramedic in Porter County, can hardly believe the rebuilding the city has done over what he remembers as an absolutely disastrous scene. When he went back to see Ground Zero with his family, he was in awe.
“Things I’ll never forget,” he said. “Was there for two days before I realized I hadn’t slept. We were ancillary staff. We would relieve the fireman doing their jobs and we helped. We ran pumps, gathered equipment, we were gophers, doing everything possible there. I left on the last day when they changed it from a rescue to a recovery. The smell of the fires, they burned for weeks, and they don’t realize a twenty-two-story Marriott and five to six ancillary buildings fell too. I look back on photos now, I can’t believe it. I’ve been back since then and seen the new building, it’s amazing.”
However, Mercaldo isn’t the type of person to wear a gold medal for his heroics, or to even see it as any more than doing what he felt was right.
“I don’t pat myself on the back for it, I just felt it was something I needed to do, and even just for my own healing, watching it happen,” he explained. “I feel that I made a difference and it is what it is. My wife, even today, says she can’t believe I was there. I couldn’t sit here any longer and watch what was happening on the television. I don’t even think about it. When anniversaries come, I do what thousands of others did during that time, too.”
After departing from New York after 9-11, Mercaldo brought back video and photos. His children at the time were in elementary school and Mercaldo spoke to the class assembly to explain what happened and showed the kids some of what he brought back, including a piece of the building. A teacher named Mr. Karris has written a book since then about his class and how the day Mercaldo came to the school affected him.
“I didn’t realize what just talking about it did for so many people,” he said.
Mercaldo’s life is worthy of the big screen, even if he humbly thinks quite the opposite. From disaster scenes to delivering babies and saving lives thousands of feet in the air, Mercaldo’s professions have taken him places he would never have imagined.
Currently, Mercaldo’s full time employment is with City of Portage Fire Department as a master firefighter and paramedic.
“I’m coming up on my 20 year mark with the department,” Mercaldo said. “I also work as a Paramedic throughout the county for Porter Hospital. One day I may work in Hebron and the next Chesterton, then Valpo; it depends where they have a need.”
Because of the fire department’s long hours, Mercaldo said many of the staff are plumbers or electricians to supplement their careers. Mercaldo continues his work as an emergency responder as a part-time paramedic for Porter EMS, coming up on his 26th year of service to the county.
“I love the profession as a paramedic,” Mercaldo said. “I hear people say, ‘you saved my life.’ I never remember names, I remember accidents or events- but only because of the tens of thousands of patients I’ve seen over the years. I don’t take credit for saving anyone's life. I don’t believe in that. I believe my job is to ease suffering and that’s how I do my job. Whether it’s to give you a blanket, give you oxygen, or a medication to make your heart beat, I want to ease your suffering. I’ve seen too much in my career to explain, with my faith and all that, that’s how I break it down.”
Mercaldo recently celebrated his 30th year as a paramedic in his life-long career. In the past, he worked as a flight paramedic for Air Angels, Inc. for almost six years and as the managing director of Wheatfield EMS for a year.
“It’s the greatest,” Mercaldo said. “I honestly feel I’ve never worked a day in my life, I actually love my job and not many can say that.”
With the many dangers firefighters face, there’s nuisances, too. For example, nothing is worse when Mercaldo, also his station’s cook, whips up some delicious cuisine only for sirens to blare in the ears as soon as they put fork to plate.
“You cook this beautiful meal and sit, and within two minutes the tone goes off,” he lamented.
Among his passions are teaching classes to new students as a paramedic preceptor.
“I’ve had a full career, worked in the emergency room, worked on the helicopter in Chicago,” Mercaldo said. “I’ve had a pretty wonderful life with the exception of one tragedy, I lost my daughter nine years ago. I’ve changed so many lives, and when it came back to me, it didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to happen. I’ve always felt that if I can help one person, and someone else didn’t need to go through that, if I could mold one more student to do what I’ve done to have this exciting wonderful career that I’ve had, it’s worth it all.”
His interest for his work began far back in his early years, as a kid watching T.V. Mercaldo was born and raised in the Philadelphia-Jersey Shore area and is now a Valparaiso resident.
“When I was young, I know this sounds crazy, there was a show called ‘Emergency 51’ and I thought it was the greatest thing,” Mercaldo said. “I never thought I could do something like that but it happened and I did it, it was the best decision of my life.”
Yet Mercaldo feels a change coming to his line of work, as he plans to switch professions and become a registered nurse. He currently is attending Ivy Tech full-time to obtain his nursing degree, due to a special person’s influence in his life.
“My wife works as a nurse and has inspired me to pursue that,” Mercaldo said.
His next step is finishing up his studies at Valparaiso University after he transfers. From there, he plans on working at the University of Chicago giving air critical care when a patient must be transported by a helicopter.
When Mercaldo worked with Air Angels in Chicago, around the same time his daughter passed away, the helicopter he worked on crashed. He lost three good friends and the patient in the crash. Unfortunately, the company dissolved afterward, but Mercaldo still wants to go back to emergency air care.
“I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Mercaldo said. “That’s my niche. Last thing you want when something tragic is happening is someone who’s frantic. Helicopter is critical care, it’s the worst of the worst. If they call a helicopter, it’s not a good situation, it’s a bad thing. I’ve been trained to a higher skill level and that’s what I feel most comfortable doing. I couldn’t work on the floor, I’d have to be in the ER or the ICU, I couldn’t work a regular floor in the hospital. I feel I have a gift, and I’m lucky I have that. I feel it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
With six children, Mercaldo and his wife are all about family and love to travel and adventure together.
“We like to take the kids around the nation to show them,” Mercaldo said. “We’ve been to so many places in the last five years alone. We’ve gone to Disney, Washington, New York, Times Square, the Liberty Bell, and I showed them Ground Zero. We travel and do things. I work a lot so we can play a lot.”
Being a family man is in his blood, growing up in a populous, close-knit home. Since Mercaldo’s long hours call for him to miss holidays and birthdays, when he is with his family he makes the most of it.
“I’m one of five children and we had a big Italian family,” he said. “Every Sunday, we do the big dinner with everyone there at Mom’s house. We all sit around and talk about our week. We’re very into the family part. Family is everything to me, that’s why I work.”
Mercaldo also has another family, who he spends days on end with, on and off the clock.
“My fire department, I consider them family,” Mercaldo said. “We work together and play together. Our kids play together. We live there, our stations are like our homes. We cook together, eat together, go on calls together and relax together. That’s what they do, one little thing and they’ll all go over.”
And while life has had its big up’s and low down’s, Mercaldo has always pursued what he loves the most, and plans to continue doing so.
“I get to go out and make a difference,” said Mercaldo. “I get to see people at their worst and at their best. I see a lot of tragedy and see a lot of people pass away, I’ve delivered five children. You get to see the good and the bad…The profession itself, I’ve done every aspect, I’ve worked everywhere. I’ve worked on helicopter, literally every aspect I’ve dabbled in and have come full circle with it now. I guess I’ll always be a paramedic.”