Wednesday, February 8, 2012
I'm a firefighter/paramedic and I began writing five years ago as a way to deal with a terrible emergency call. Read my previous post about that call here. The reason for writing this blog today is no different.
On the Saturday before Christmas last December, I was working at Fire Station 15 in Columbus, Ohio. I had been asleep for a couple of hours when the fire tones startled me awake at around 5AM. Within seconds I had my bunker pants on and was climbing into the ladder truck. Before I was in the truck, the fire tones sounded again, which wasn't a typical occurrence. The dispatcher reported that the police were already on the scene and had confirmed a working fire, explaining the quick second tone.
I knew from the address and the time of night that Ladder15 would likely be the first ladder on the scene and that my job (among other jobs) would be to search whatever was on fire for victims who might be trapped.
Remember, I'm still trying to get my bearings after going from a deep sleep (actually firefighters never sleep soundly at the fire house, but you get the jest) to full adrenaline rush within an instant. Ever wonder why firefighters routinely die of heart attacks within a few hours of fire calls? Or shortly after retirement? Well, that stress on a person's heart is part of the reason. There's another reason, and I'm getting to that now.
Before we pulled out of the station, our dispatcher announced that two children were still in the burning apartment (probably confirmed by the police on the scene). I get chills just writing that line and not the good kind of chills either. So now, as I was getting my gear on, slinging my air tank onto my back, and strapping my TIC (Thermal Imaging Camera) to my coat, I was also game-planning how my crew and I were going to get to those kids.
Every second seemed like forever and the ladder couldn't move fast enough. Engine 4 marked on the scene and further confirmed every firefighters' biggest fear: yes, there were kids inside. Before we turned onto the street of the fire, we saw the bright orange glow above the surrounding apartment buildings. We turned onto the court where the unit on fire sat. Flames were blowing from every upstairs window.
I mentally sized up the structure in hopes of finding a possible way for my crew and I to get to where the kids would most likely be found at that time of night (upstairs). A part of me knew no one could survive in those conditions, but another part hoped beyond hope that the kids had made it downstairs and could still be rescued.
As we jumped from the ladder and started toward the inferno, our chief called me to the command post. He told me to get onto the roof of the attached unit and get a ventilation hole cut. I can't remember the exact timing, but I believe it was around this same time that Engine 4 knocked down the fire a bit and reported two fatalities inside. A fire that had gotten that intense and large before the first fire truck even arrived meant conditions inside weren't likely to be survivable.
My crew and I slung ladders to the roof, gathered chainsaws and other tools, and did what we were told to do. My heart hurt while we cut that hole, but we had a job to do. Even as I worked, I knew my crew, along with every firefighter on the scene, had just been kicked in the gut. We put out the fire like we always do, but this fire was something more--something far worse--than the others. The remainder of our job (as Ladder 15) after ventilating the roof consisted of various tasks that forced us to work where the two children lay.
I'm not going to go into details here, I see no reason, but I will say that such a horrible morning changes a person. I deal with these things better nowadays as I gain years and experience, but nothing prepares a person for what I saw. I live with those memories and the thought of what could have been if the fire was only discovered a few minutes sooner and we were called in time. Damnit, we would have found those kids, I know it. You wanna know why I'm so confident? Because Columbus firefighters, like firefighters around the world, are very skilled and dedicated to walking through literal Hell in order to find you and your family if you need us. We do it often and sometimes we win. Other times, like that Saturday morning, we lose, and that loss takes something from all of us. Fire is a merciless, unforgiving beast. Those kids didn't stand a chance and my heart is still heavy for them. I'll never forget what I saw that day but I will work as hard as I can to not have to see it again. Unfortunately, as was the case that morning, it isn't always up to me.
Update: This report was on local news today following up on this story.