July 5, 1942 — June 29, 2018
When Erie County Sheriff's Detective Chester J. Krupczyk Jr. slid headfirst inside a 15-foot-tall ice volcano on Lake Erie on Jan. 14, 1999, his life, as well as that of the boys he was trying to save, was suddenly at risk.
That daring and difficult rescue of Richard E. Burst, 7, and Anthony Trigilio, 9, off the shore of the Town of Evans in biting wind and freezing temperatures resulted in several awards for pilot Capt. Kevin Caffery and Mr. Krupczyk, as well as a whirlwind appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show and a trip, with the show, to the Bahamas.
Still, many of Mr. Krupczyk's friends and acquaintances never knew of his bravery on this and other occasions, said his wife of nearly 50 years, Jacqueline Krupczyk. "He was such a humble man," she said. "It was all in a day's work for him."
Mr. Krupczyk, 75, of the City of Tonawanda, died June 29 in Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center after a short illness.
The most dramatic – but far from the only – rescue of Mr. Krupczyk's 35-year career with the Erie County Sheriff's Department began when Town of Evans police requested help from Air One to rescue the two boys who had gone out onto thin ice in a biting wind chill to explore a tall ice volcano formed by high winds. Rescuers could see one boy on the thin ice, but could not get to him, and the other had disappeared, said Caffery, who was the pilot and Mr. Krupczyk's partner.
Caffery landed the chopper near Richard, who was unconscious on the ice at the base of the volcano about 500 yards from shore.
Mr. Krupczyk donned a harness and pulled Richard to safety, then went back to search for Anthony. Caffery watched him climb up the side of the ice volcano, then plunge in. "As soon as I saw him go into that hole, I knew that's where the boy was," Caffery said. "The last thing I saw was Chet's feet in the air as he went in. And when he didn't come out, I knew he must be in trouble."
Caffery secured the helicopter, donned a harness, and went to their aid, finding Mr. Krupczyk "up to his face in ice" but holding Anthony. Caffery grabbed the boy's hair and dragged him out, then returned to give Mr. Krupczyk a hand. Together, repeatedly breaking through the ice, the men carried the boy to the chopper and to safety.
Days after the rescue, Caffery and Mr. Krupczyk got a call from the top-rated "Oprah Winfrey Show." They were whisked to Chicago, where they stayed in a fancy hotel and rode in limousines. On the show, the deputies were reunited with Anthony and met his grateful mother.
The boy told Winfrey, "It was really cold. I didn't feel my legs anymore."
When Mr. Krupczyk slid headfirst into the ice volcano, he said, "I wasn't thinking of the cold, just the young man."
"We salute you, we honor you – real heroes," Winfrey exclaimed, to thunderous applause.
At the end of the show, guests' spouses were called on stage and Winfrey said, "It's so cold we are going to the Bahamas!"
Mrs. Krupczyk thought Winfrey meant that her show would be taping in the Bahamas, but an American Airlines flight attendant with airline tickets convinced her otherwise. In the Bahamas, they were showered with champagne, chocolates and souvenirs and had seats in the audience at more of Winfrey's shows.
For the daring ice rescue, Mr. Krupczyk and Caffery were honored at the 1999 Heroes Award Dinner of the One Hundred Club of Buffalo and Western New York. Mr. Krupczyk was awarded a sheriff's department Medal of Valor, and the rescue was the topic of a cover story in New York State Sheriff's Magazine.
Caffery and Mr. Krupczyk jointly received the William R. Dils Deputy of the Year Award, and both received the U.S. Coast Guard's prestigious Silver Lifesaving Medal, the second-highest award bestowed upon Americans for acts of heroism. Still, since her husband's death, Jacqueline Krupczyk said, "we have friends visiting here who knew him for years and he never talked about it."
That was not Mr. Krupczyk's only spectacular rescue. In June 1996, with Caffery again at the controls, he left Air One to pull a Canadian man to safety from from tiny Gull Island near the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. "He walked near the brink of the falls that day," Jacqueline Krupczyk said. "They were a team, and he and all the partners he worked with had to depend on each other for their lives."
"He was a humble guy, courageous like you couldn't believe, one of the most professional people I've ever had the pleasure of working with, just a great guy," said Caffery, who was Mr. Krupczyk's partner for years. "He was an absolutely wonderful guy and he loved his work. He was the epitome of a professional police officer."
Mr. Krupczyk was born in the Polish Black Rock neighborhood, the son of the late Chester J. Sr. and Josephine (Chmieloska), both factory workers. His brother, James, died as an infant. Corkey, as the family called him, was stricken with polio at age 10 and stayed out of school for a year. He was tended by his mother, who used Sister Elizabeth Kenny's intensive physical therapy technique to warm, stretch and strengthen his affected arm and leg. "I like to say that his mother saved his life," his wife said. "He had no disability from it."
Mr. Krupczyk attended School 42, and, after his family moved to Riverside, All Saints School. He studied electrical engineering at Hutchinson Technical Institute, then enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1964. He was stationed in various places around the country and spent 13 months on the DMZ in South Korea. He was a Military Police officer who belonged to the 8th Army pistol team.
Two weeks after returning home after his discharge in 1966, Mr. Krupczyk started work as a meat-cutter at a small Tops Market on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda. Jacqueline Fitzpatrick, collecting information for payroll, recalled the first words she said to the man who would become her husband of nearly 50 years: "I need your name, age, date of birth and a statement of your earnings."
But as she looked at him, she said, she was thinking, "Oh, wow!" She invited him to a party at her cousin's house, and, she said, "The party never stopped." They married on July 27, 1968, in St. Francis Xavier Church and became the parents of a son, Christopher.
Mr. Krupczyk joined the Sheriff's Department in 1967, working through the years in the Patrol, Motorcycle, Detective, Marine and Aviation divisions and as a department SCUBA diver and sharpshooter. Mr. Krupczyk retired in 2002 as a senior tactical flight officer. "He loved the aviation division," said Jacqueline Krupczyk. "He would hang by his fingernails outside just to be on the helicopter."
In the early 1970s, Mr. Krupczyk joined the Army National Guard, serving for several years, then joined the 107th Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron of the U.S. Air Force, working with the K-135 midair refuelers at the Niagara Falls air base. Between active and reserve service, he spent more than 20 years in the military.
In addition to his work with the sheriff's department, Mr. Krupczyk always had a part-time job, his wife said: "He was a very industrious person."
He volunteered with the food pantry at St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Tonawanda, and, although the Krupczyks spent recent winters in Clearwater, Fla., he handled the phone ordering and communications with the Food Bank from Florida. He also volunteered for Clearwater Meals on Wheels.
He was a member of Sheriff's Badge and Shield and the Polaris Shooting Club. Besides his wife and son, Mr. Krupczyk is survived by a grandson, a granddaughter, and many nieces and nephews.
Services were held last week.