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Largo honors firefighter, two others, for bravery in bar attack

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Published:   |   Updated: July 2, 2013 at 09:18 PM

LARGO - One Sunday night in May, Largo firefighter Nick Rees and his brother were playing foosball at the Red Lion Pub in Indian Rocks Beach when a drunk walked in and started stabbing the woman tending bar.

"I jumped in the middle and blocked the knife with my arm," said Rees, 35. His brother, Gordon, 44, meanwhile grabbed the drunk from behind. Another bar patron, Michael Arnold, 26, grabbed for the filet knife, cutting his fingers.

"It was so chaotic," Rees said. "Everybody was screaming."

Between the three of them, they managed to wrestle the drunk, 50-year-old James Klingbeil, to the floor, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. They kept him there until deputies showed up. The bartender survived the attack.

On Tuesday night, Nick Rees was given the National Medal of Honor for Valor at a special ceremony at the Largo City Commission meeting, while his brother and Arnold were given meritorious service awards.

The honor is not to be confused with the one given to members of the military for acts of bravery but is fashioned after it, said Shelby Willis, acting fire chief for Largo Fire Rescue.

While the one given to servicemen and servicewoman usually comes after a nomination by a soldier's chain-of-command or a U.S. Congressman, Willis, as acting chief, is empowered to give one of her charges a version designated for those in the public safety field,

"It's something I can do," Willis said before Tuesday's ceremony.

Willis is also empowered to give meritorious service awards to civilians such as Rees' brother and Arnold, she said.

"It's a pretty rewarding feeling," said Nick Rees, who's been with the fire department for five years. "It was great we were able to stop something further from happening, perhaps her getting killed."

A standing-room-only crowd of family members was on hand Tuesday night, as was the bartender, 32-year-old Rebecca Schaefer, who thanked the men for what they did on May 19 at the Red Lion, located at 1407 Gulf Blvd. She and her family had already thanked them all privately.

Schaefer had refused to serve Klingbeil because he had already had too much to drink, according to the sheriff's office. He left, purchased a filet knife at a nearby grocer's and returned, arguing with her before whipping out the knife and attacking her with it, deputies said.

After he was subdued, Schaefer, Nick Rees, and Arnold were treated at various hospitals for their cuts, which were not life-threatening.

Klingbeil was arrested and charged with attempted first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He is still being held at the Pinellas County Jail.

Tribune photojournalist Jason Behnken contributed to this report.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

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