a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, April 8, 2011

Police sometimes hide what's inside on days like this

Clairton police Officer Ben Salvio passes a flame to California Borough police Officer Tracy Potemra-Hudak tonight at a prayer vigil in Clairton for one of its patrolmen, James Kusak Jr., who has been hospitalized in critical condition with gunshot wounds he suffered in the line of duty Monday. Kusak, 39, worked with the Washington County Drug Task Force and formerly served as a police officer in Cecil and Peters townships. (Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CLAIRTON, Pa. – Police officers on their difficult days sometimes don't have much to say.

Others use laughter in the face of crisis to "hide what is inside," a police chaplain said tonight, while hundreds of cops gathered to pray for a Clairton, Pa., patrolman, who suffered critical injuries in a shooting Monday in the line of duty.

"These times are tough," added Clairton Police Chief Robert Hoffman, at the candlelight vigil in a local park to hope for the recovery of officer James Kuzak Jr.

Kuzak, 39, was shot three times while responding to a home invasion probably linked to drugs after his having been on the job part time there for less than a month.

One shot struck Kuzak, of Bethel Park, in the left armpit and below the protected area of his bulletproof vest. The bullet traveled through a lung, severed his spinal cord and lodged in muscle, most-likely leaving him paralyzed below the waist, his friend said tonight. Another bullet caught him in the right hand and remained in his elbow. The third grazed him after striking his police radio. The loss of blood has resulted in Kuzak undergoing blood transfusions and a call for blood drives to meet his needs at UPMC Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh. Police have two suspects in custody.

"(Kuzak's) road to recovery will be long and difficult," Hoffman said. "The men of the Clairton Police Department will be there beside him. He is truly a cop's cop."

Clairton is an especially tough place to work for police officers. Its air reeks of pollution from U.S. Steel coke production in a mill town whose downtown is in shambles and has been known over the years to also be frequented by prostitutes. Shootings have become almost as common as the smoke that billows from the mill stacks.

Meanwhile, the old stone park lodge near where the vigil was held is run down as elected officials there deal with a shrinking tax base.

Yet police officers from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania packed the nearby pavilion to show their support for Kuzak and his family. A half-dozen or more police canines howled and barked as people offered prayers for the officer, who cared for cadaver dogs.

Kuzak's mother, Bev, could barely speak through her tears as she thanked the law enforcement community for its support of her family while her son battles his injuries.

"In my heart, he's nothing but a special man. I'm sorry, sorry," she said, before losing her words. 

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