It’s apropos that the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association gets word from postmasters about the heroic acts of rural mail carriers via letter.

Once such piece of mail the association received — about a pair of Belgrade carriers, Nicholas Claudel and Joseph Arsenault Jr. — earned the duo the organization’s Hero of the Year Award for their actions pulling a driver from his vehicle moments before it was engulfed in flames in Belgrade on Jan. 2.

“This just goes to show you that the USPS and rural carriers do more than carry mail every day,” said Ronnie Stutts, president of NRLCA, which is the union for U.S. Postal Service carriers, who noted the important role rural mail carriers play. “They are the eyes and ears for the rural community.”

Belgrade postal carriers Nicholas Claudel, second from left, and Joseph Arsenault Jr., second from right, were awarded the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association Hero of the Year award at the organization’s national convention in August in Grapevine, Texas. They were given the award because of their involvement in pulling a man out of his vehicle, which was engulfed in flames. Pictured with them are NRLCA President Ronnie W. Stutts, right, and John Sherwood, assistant fire chief of the Grapevine Texas Fire Department.

Claudel was preparing for his delivery route on Jan. 2 when he heard what sounded like a plow truck dropping its plow outside.

“There is a plow out? It is not even snowing,” he said he overheard someone say. Out of the corner of his eye, however, it was a different scene.

Fire cut the snowy landscape out the window where Claudel saw an overturned tanker truck

As the Belgrade Post Office evacuated, Claudel, following Arsenault, raced toward the burning truck where the driver was still inside. 

The truck, after crashing with a sport utility vehicle at the intersection of routes 27 and 8, turned 180 degrees and onto its passenger side, coming to a stop in the road across from the post office. 

“By the time we got there, there were shooting flames from (fuel) nozzles from the rear of the vehicle,” Claudel said. 

The driver of the tanker, Mark Tuttle, was still conscious, Claudel said, and he and Arsenault were able to assist him out of the truck. 

“We did not know what his state was,” Claudel said. 

But the men would not have an immediate chance to determine the nature of his injuries. Claudel saw the flames were coming over the top of the vehicle — it was time to get away from the tanker.

The truck was hauling 9,500 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil, according to a press release issued by Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, following the accident.

Soon, it was fully engulfed in flames that reached high into the sky. The plumes of smoke could be seen from Augusta.

Belgrade Fire Chief Daniel MacKenzie said that their acts of bravery were responsible for preventing the driver from being injured further — even may have saved his life.

“It was long after that when we got there,” he said.

MacKenzie was only four miles away when the call came in. By the time he arrived at the scene, he said, “there were flames running down the ditches.”

The truck crash was so close to the post office that flames melted siding on the front of the building. To make sure it did not catch fire, firefighters hosed down the front of the structure.

It would be another several hours before the fire burned out, MacKenzie said, per instructions from the Department of Environmental Protection, and firefighters did not clear the scene until about five hours after the accident. 

NRLCA compiles these heroic acts and gives awards to postal carriers at its annual convention. Carriers in the major regions of the U.S. are awarded, and one award is given on the national scale. Because both Claudel and Arsenault were involved in the incident, both received an award. 

In front of nearly 3,000 people, the men received the award during the NRLCA convention in August in Grapevine, Texas. The organization flew the men and their family members to the event, Claudel said, an experience that was very humbling.

“I do not consider myself to be a hero,” he said. “I look at myself as a servant.”

His service dates back to before he became a postal carrier, when he served as a member of the Maine Army National Guard.

“Real heroes are the guys who wear the uniform every day,” he said. “I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

Claudel lives in Belgrade and is the father of three children, including one who was born around three months ago. 

The NRLCA award wasn’t the only recognition the pair received for their actions. Edward Phelan Jr., Northeast area vice president of operations for the U.S. Postal Service, and other postal service officials came to the Belgrade post office to meet and congratulate the two carriers a week after the crash. And in May, the men were also honored during a Boston Celtics game and given the Heroes Among Us Award.

Arsenault declined to be interviewed for this article.

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