As we noted last month in Part 1 of this column, for most firefighters, odds are your most common structural fires involve single-family dwellings. In addition to construction concerns, "what's inside" is a major factor that can lead to close calls, or worse, for firefighters. In this case, for...
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We were two to three feet from the bedroom doorway when out of nowhere there was the sound of a quick hiss followed by a tremendous roar, as if someone had fully opened an SCBA bottle. The gush of air was immediately followed by two small "explosions." These happened very quickly and were not very loud. However, not two seconds after the small "explosion," there was a tremendous boom that reminded me of firing a high-powered rifle. The force of the explosion felt like someone hitting you in the chest with a 50-pound sledgehammer. We could literally feel the force push us down the hallway. It felt as if we were pushed a foot or two down the hallway. In fact, somehow the lieutenant was pushed past me in the hallway.
Debris was flying down the hallway and hitting me in the front of my body. Immediately after the explosion, the room went from looking like an ordinary burnt-out room to fully engulfed. I held onto the attack line and opened the nozzle to hit the fire. I was unaware that the lieutenant had been knocked behind me, and I believed he was inside the room that was now rolling with fire. Another bottle was hissing very loudly; it seemed to me to be the sound of someone screaming. I'm assuming this was due to the disorientation of being hit by the shock wave from the explosion.
The disorientation was immediate. It was difficult to get my senses and determine what had just happened. Once I realized that my lieutenant was not in the room, and we communicated that it was time to get out, we immediately went into self-rescue mode. The lieutenant staggered down the hallway and out the front door. I'm not sure how he did this because we were both so confused. I followed shortly behind him. Stumbling, I could see and follow the hoseline down the hallway and out the front door. Once outside in the yard, our brothers and sisters immediately tended to us.
The ringing in my ears was the first injury I noticed. I was literally unable to hear out of my left ear, which I'm assuming took the brunt of the blast injury, and I had minimal hearing in my right ear. Once out of my PPE (personal protective equipment), I had several bruises and cuts that occurred from the flying debris. These injuries were on both arms and on my chest. The lieutenant and I were transported to the local hospital for evaluation due to possible blast trauma.
Following evaluation, the lieutenant and I were able to return to the scene. Seeing the result of the blast and the damage it had done was amazing. We were truly "lucky" we were not three feet closer. The oxygen bottle that exploded was only feet from us when it blew. The bottle destroyed the interior wall next to the bottles and significantly damaged a van that was on the opposite side of the wall. It also blew several holes in the subfloor. Items within the garage became projectiles as they hit the garage door. The victim's bed frame and rails were blown to pieces. The destruction that this one oxygen bottle created was something to see. It literally looked as if a bomb had exploded only feet from us. The scary thing about the incident is that the home contained eight oxygen bottles. We had experienced the explosion of only one bottle.
The lieutenant and I escaped with minor injuries. Both of us suffered hearing loss and I had bruises and cuts. The mental harm may have been the biggest concern. Anytime you have an incident or close call, you start playing the "what-if" game. What if we had been inside the room? What if the oxygen bottle had blown to pieces instead of just opening up? What if more than one of the eight oxygen bottles had blown?
The days following the explosion were also interesting. My body felt like I had been involved in a car wreck. Everything from muscle soreness to achy joints to headaches to just feeling lousy followed. However, these symptoms subsided after a few days. Neither of us missed any time away from the fire department and neither of us has any lasting damage from our close call.
This account is by Firefighter/EMT Steve Maselli:
I was assigned as apparatus operator (AO) for Engine 453, Company 3, Shift 1 the night of the structure fire. While enroute, we were updated by dispatch that there were multiple oxygen cylinders in the residence, as well as an injured occupant who was out of the residence. Upon arrival, we noticed a large volume of fire coming from a window on side D. There was no obvious fire on sides A or B that we could see; however, a lot of smoke was beginning to vent from the eaves of the roofline.
I pulled the engine to the edge of side A/B so there would be room behind us for other companies. Ambulances 463 and 464 were both on scene, with Ambulance 464 parked in front of us. The EMS crews immediately located the victim at a neighbor's house and began treating her. We established that everybody was out of the residence and no interior rescue was needed.