By Tamas Mondovics

Since 1994, men and women of law enforcement and fire rescue in Hillsborough County have been honored for their everyday acts of courage, valor, fearlessness and selflessness during the annual Our Heroes Luncheon ceremony.

This year 17 recipients, including FishHawk resident HCSO District IV Deputy Phillip Merkle, were recognized for providing safety and security for members of the community.

Considered by many as the largest of its kind in the United States, the event held at the Tampa Convention Center was presented by Sykes Enterprises, Incorporated (SYKES) and was hosted by John Thomas of ABC Action News and Mason Dixon of Q105.

The ceremony brought together hundreds of first responders from Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City as well as from the Florida Highway Patrol and USF Police Department.

Addressing the honorees, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn greeted the large crowd about to enjoy their lunch prior to the awards ceremony.

“This lunch is for you,” Buckhorn said. “We are here to honor you and to thank you for what you do and the courage that you all have. You help us, protect us, serve us and save us, each and every day. For being stronger, faster and more courageous than most; for giving yourselves for the sake of strangers.”

Merkle, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office since 2003, was awarded Law Enforcement Deputy of the Year for his heroism on a number of occasions including his quick action during an accident involving a flatbed tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 75 which was hauling a heavy bulldozer.

The truck veered off the roadway, crashed through a retaining wall, and fell more than 70 ft. in the shallow waters of the Alafia River. Merkle called for assistance and immediately ran to the shore, wading through more than100 yds. of swampy marsh tall grass while waist deep in mud to reach the truck.

Witnesses reported that the conditions were so bad, people on the bridge had to yell directions in order to guide Merkle to the truck, the driver of which had sustained serious lacerations and was bleeding heavily.

Merkle then used a shirt to slow the bleeding, while at the same time helping the driver get away from the crashed vehicle back through the marsh toward the shoreline. Merkle then flagged down a boater who took the two men to the Gibsonton boat ramp where paramedics took over care. He ultimately saved the driver’s life who later thanked Merkle.

“You don’t think about your own safety,” Merkle said prior to his recognition. “Anybody would have done it. I was just there at the right time.”

Throughout 2013 Merkle has also demonstrated initiative and conducted investigations that led to suspects being charged in separate cases involving the internal theft of metals, tires and rims. The theft ultimately resulted in $100,000 in losses for their victims throughout the south part of the county.

“In both cases Deputy Merkle went above and beyond his duties, applying a number of resources to acquire evidence and key out the suspects,” the Sheriff’s Office said.

LunchoenElizabeth BradfordThe event also awarded eight scholarships to children of first responders, including Elizabeth Bradford, daughter of Lieutenant James Bradford and Lieutenant Susan Bradford of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are just so proud of Elizabeth,” Susan said about her daughter, a Strawberry Crest IB student who is active in politics and plans to attend Florida State University to study pre-law.

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