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Heroic police officers honored at State House ceremony

On April 13, 2012, a Chicopee man opened fire with an assault rifle at a busy intersection, sending residents lunging for cover and pinning down a school bus. After hearing radio transmissions that several police officers were under fire, State Trooper John Vasquez rushed to the scene.

He was met with a hail of bullets and sustained three serious wounds. But he was able to move his cruiser out of the line of fire while a second trooper ran to help trapped civilians.

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The six-minute shootout, which ended when the gunman took his own life, could have been a “disaster of incredible proportions,” the city’s mayor said at the time. But because of Vasquez and other officers, no innocent lives were lost.

For his “heroic actions” and sacrifice, Vasquez received Monday the Trooper George L. Hanna Medal of Honor, among the state’s leading honors for police officers. Six others — three state troopers and three Chicopee police officers — got the Hanna Medal of Valor for their response to the shootout.

The awards were presented at a poignant State House ceremony Monday, an annual event that recognizes bravery in the line of duty.

After the ceremony, Vasquez said he was honored to receive the award, but did not feel that his actions were unusual.

Pele A. James of the Boston police, was honored by Governor Deval Patrick for an arrest in a violent drug bust.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Pele A. James of the Boston police, was honored by Governor Deval Patrick for an arrest in a violent drug bust.

“I did what anyone else in my position would have done,” he said. “We go into each day knowing what could happen.”

Vasquez was out of work for more than four months after the shooting, which left dozens of pieces of shrapnel embedded in his leg. He said he remains somewhat amazed he survived.

“Thank God he didn’t know how to shoot,” he quipped.

The awards are named for State Trooper George L. Hanna, who was shot and killed February 26, 1983, after stopping a car in Auburn. He left his wife and three children.

The honored officers entered the State House chamber to a procession of drums and bagpipes and received a standing ovation. Governor Deval Patrick thanked them for their service and display of “extraordinary courage and sacrifice.”

The awards honored deeds performed in 2012.

Lieutenant Detective David Gecoya of the Saugus Police Department and Malden Detective Michael Casaletto received the Medal of Honor for their response to a bank robbery in Saugus on March 23, 2012.

Police pursued three suspects into Malden, where they abandoned their car and tried to enter a condominium building. One of the suspects fired at Casaletto while forcibly using a woman as a human shield. Gecoya fired back, but stopped when he realized there were other people in the area.

As the suspect attempted to hijack a car, Gecoya ordered him to drop his weapon and fired after the man pointed his gun at him. The suspect then accelerated toward a Malden officer, who also fired several shots. The suspect was eventually killed.

The officers received the award for their “incredible stamina and outstanding bravery in the face of grave danger,” said Anne Powers, the state’s undersecretary for law enforcement.

The Medal of Honor was also awarded to the family of Kevin Ambrose, a Springfield police officer who was killed June 4, 2012, responding to a call to enforce a restraining order. His wife and son received the award on his behalf.

In a video remembrance featuring interviews with former colleagues, Ambrose was recalled as a happy-go-lucky spirit who adored his family, loved police work, and could hit a golf ball a mile down the fairway.

His wife wiped away tears after the video, as the crowd stood and applauded.

Police said that Ambrose was responding to a domestic call between a man and his former girlfriend when the man, Shawn Bryan, shot Ambrose and then shot and killed himself.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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