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City's better half shines through Buffalo firefighters team up to help 87-year-old crime victim get through scary event

In the past week, 87-year-old Alta Johnson has seen Buffalo at its ugliest -- and also at its best.

The woman was walking from a nearby bank to her Vernon Place home Monday morning, when two thugs attacked her from behind. One slammed his elbow into the back of her head, knocking her to the pavement. The other snatched her purse.

A neighbor called 911, and Buffalo police and firefighters quickly responded. They found Johnson bleeding from the nose, sitting on the concrete in front of a friend's home. Johnson refused to be taken to a hospital, so firefighters helped her to her home.

Later, she went to Sisters Hospital for treatment and found that her left arm had been broken in two places. An extensive search of the neighborhood turned up no sign of the two bandits.

The crime left Johnson, a retired nursing home aide and a lifelong city resident, scared and dejected.

But then a knock on her door Tuesday night -- about 32 hours after the crime -- brightened her outlook considerably.

"Someone pounded at the door and said, 'Buffalo Fire Department!' " recalled Dawn Manzella, Johnson's daughter. "My daughter [Michelle] said, 'Is everything OK Is our house on fire?' "

There was no fire, just a group of uniformed city firefighters from the nearby Engine 34/Ladder Truck 7 firehouse, stopping by to give Johnson $120 they had collected to reimburse her for the money she lost.

"This meant so much to my mom," Manzella said. "She had tears running down her face. She said nobody has ever done anything like that for her in her entire life."

For Lt. Rick Panowicz and other members of the First Platoon at Ladder Truck 7 and Engine 34, stationed at Main Street near Mercer Avenue, gathering some money to help Johnson was a "no-brainer."

All of the firefighters and police officers who responded to the crime scene after Johnson was knocked down and robbed were "very upset," Panowicz said.

"We got there, and this lady was on the concrete, bleeding, in tears, and there was a blood trail about 10 feet long," Panowicz said. "We were all horrified that someone would do that to a woman her age. They were obviously watching her and waiting for her after she left the bank."

When firefighters returned to their firehouse, they couldn't stop talking about what they had seen, and all quickly agreed that they should collect money to give to the crime victim.

"One of the things that got to me was, after [the robbery], Mrs. Johnson said to one of our guys, 'Those boys who did this must have needed the money.' She was forgiving and feeling sorry for them," Panowicz said.

Panowicz said it meant a lot to the firefighters that Johnson was so appreciative when they brought the money to her. He said the firefighters involved in the cash collection effort were James Upshaw, Steve Hartman, T.J. Blackmon, Michael Menge, Derrick Norman, Byron Wilson and Clarence Perry.

"These guys were moved by what happened to that lady because they are part of the community, and they really do care what happens there, said Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., the city's acting fire commissioner.

A Buffalo News reporter and photographer were with Johnson and her family Friday night when four of the firefighters who helped her -- Blackmon, Menge, Norman and Wilson -- stopped by to see how she was doing. She erupted in laughter and began hugging and kissing the firefighters.

"These are my guys! They're back again!" Johnson said.

In a quieter moment, Johnson spoke about the robbery.

"I felt someone hit me in the back of the head. They grabbed my purse and down I went," she said. "I hurt my nose when I fell. I crawled over to the sidewalk, and I was calling for help."

She said firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel and her neighbors have all been "wonderful" to her since the crime.

Vernon Place has an active block club. Neighbors look out for each other and work closely with police, said Jeanine Baran, one of the organizers of the Vernon Triangle Block Club.

"[Johnson] is a wonderful, plucky old lady, and everyone loves her," Baran said.

"It's a shame, because this really is a good neighborhood," said Dawn Manzella.

Michelle Manzella, Johnson's granddaughter, said her grandmother is an amazingly independent woman, but she worries about the effect the robbery has had on her.

"She's such a strong woman. She cooks for herself, does her own dishes, even with one hand, but this has been hard on her," Manzella said. "She looked at me the other night and said, 'I don't feel like myself anymore.' "

Michelle Manzella said the kindness of the firefighters has definitely given her grandmother a boost over the past few days.

"She saw what bad people can do, but she sees that there are a lot of good people, too," she said.

"I'm still a little dazed," Johnson said. She pointed to the splint she wears on her arm. "I'll be back and running again after I get rid of this thing," she said.

Northwest District police officers, headed by Lt. Dawn Kent, made an intensive search of the Main Street-Fillmore Avenue area for the bandits -- two young men wearing hoodies -- but could not find them. They are still determined to capture the thieves, said police spokesman Michael DeGeorge.

"This was a despicable and cowardly crime," DeGeorge said.

He asked that anyone who has information about the incident call the department's confidential tip line at 847-2255, or send a text message to 847-2255.

"We really want to solve this crime, but we need help from the public," said DeGeorge, who added that police also are examining videotaped evidence from one of the city's surveillance cameras not far from the crime scene.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com