"I Fell Through the Floor And Was Burning"

Union Fire Company 1 (Berks County Company 61) of Hamburg, PA, protects roughly 15,000 people in Hamburg Borough and surrounding areas. The company operates three engines, a brush truck, a heavy rescue and a 100-foot quint aerial truck, and is staffed by approximately 60 volunteer firefighters. The photos in this column were taken by Virginville Fire Company Captain Chris Skipper after overhaul was performed on the day of the fire and we appreciate his assistance. Our sincere thanks also go out to Union Chief Troy R. Hatt, Firefighter Matt Lutz, Fire Lieutenant Jarrod Emes, and the members of the Union Fire Company, Shartlesville Company 41 and Centerport Company 38 for their assistance and cooperation in this month's "close call."

The following account is by Firefighter Matt Lutz:

I was inside the house with another firefighter, Rich Weidner, from Hamburg (Company 61) and other crews. We encountered thick smoke and intense heat. I held onto and followed a hoseline that was already inside the house when I came upon another firefighter who, when I bumped into him, grabbed my helmet shield and yelled through his mask, "There's a large hole in the floor to your right that burned through, don't go over there and stay right here so any other crews coming in won't fall in the hole."

I did as ordered and stayed to the side of the hoseline and held on tight to it so not to lose my bearings. The house was filled with thick smoke and I was unable to even see where I had just moments ago come in. I guarded the hole in the floor even though I wasn't able to see it. While sitting there, guarding my position to protect other firefighters who would be entering, I stretched my leg out and found where there was no floor. At that point, two firefighters crawled in and bumped into me. I grabbed the first guy's shield and yelled, "Stay to the left of the hoseline, the floor is gone to my right, do you understand?" And they yelled back, "Yeah, we got it, thanks."

I stayed as more hose was being pulled in to fight the fire, which was in the one wall and had extended out the roof and walls. While I was there, off and on, I could see the orange and red glow of flames. Fire had been shooting out the front and back windows and I knew it was through the roof; I could feel the intense heat come over me like a wall and I knew it was close.

Rich came in and I yelled to him, "Stay right here, don't go to my right side, the floor is gone." He asked, "It's gone?" And I said, "Yes! It is burned through. Stay to the left of the hoseline." Rich then asked me, "Is this Lutz?" I said yes and he said OK. I again said, "Hey you understand? Stay to the..."

Just that quickly, the floor caved in under me and I dropped through the floor. My airmask and helmet caught on the flooring during my fall! My mask lifted up, breaking my seal, and I heard the air rushing out of my facemask and the smoke rushing in! I still was hanging onto the hoseline with both hands.

While I hung there, not being able to feel anything but emptiness below my feet, Rich had a death grip on my left shoulder. Rich was yelling at the top of his lungs, "Man down, man down!" over and over; "I need help, firefighter down, firefighter down, floor cave-in, floor cave-in, help me!". At the same time, I tried yelling, since my face was partially exposed from my airmask, but the smoke gagged me as I tried to keep my breath, and I just hung on. At some point, I heard the calls go out over the radio - "We have a firefighter through the floor, floor caved in. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday."

Just then, I thought I felt something hit my foot. I wasn't sure, so I hung onto the hose. Rich was yelling to me, "I've got you, buddy, I'm not letting go, I've got you." (Weidner activated his PASS alarm to attract the attention of others on the scene). Right then, again, I thought I felt someone hit my foot; I had so many things running through my head at the same time I didn't know if I was thinking clearly. I thought it might have been someone below me or was my mind playing tricks on me, or was I already dead and it was something else telling me to just let go. I yelled to Rich, "I think they got me below, let go," but Rich said, "I'm not letting go of you." I again said, "Let go, they got me below." I pried Rich's hand off my shoulder and dropped to the basement, hoping I made the right choice - but at this point, I couldn't stand to breathe any more, my throat hurt so bad and my lungs felt tight, like someone sitting on my chest. Every time I tried to bump my head underneath the floor to push my mask over my face, I lost some of my grip on the hoseline, so I had to give up trying that, but I never let go of the line.

At this point, I was found and dragged out by some other members. Jarrod reconnected my airpack straps around my groin area to use it as a sling, loosened my shoulder straps and dragged me out. They estimate I was inside like that for two or three minutes, which to me seemed like hours, not knowing if I was going to get out alive again. I was placed on a backboard with shoulder and arm pain and breathing difficulties, and placed into Medic Unit 537 for transport to Reading Hospital. The medic crew had called to see if a helicopter medical evacuation could meet them somewhere to have me airlifted. That was not possible due to the snowstorm we were having. Reading Hospital said to redirect and have me taken out to the burn center at Lehigh Valley Hospital.

While lying in the ambulance, strapped to the board, I had problems breathing and oxygen wasn't helping me. They advised that my airway was closing up, and I wasn't getting enough air to breathe. They told me they were going to put me to sleep and insert tubes down my throat and use the bag to breathe for me all the way to the hospital. Due to the weather, the ride took an hour.

I don't remember anything immediately after that, but when I was in the burn center room later that night, I couldn't open my eyes or move my arms or legs, and I heard all kinds of machines beeping. I could hear what was being said around me, and remember a doctor saying to another one, "This guy has some bad burns to his lungs and throat, and some very bad smoke inhalation. It's going to be touch and go with this guy. We need to suction his lungs every hour and keep a close eye on him." And then the doctor said to the other one, "I can't believe these guys do this firefighting stuff as volunteer firefighters." Every time I tried to breathe, I would gag and stuff would run out my nose and my mouth because I was on the respirator and had a tube down my throat with monitors hooked up all over me. I knew I wasn't in good condition when I tried opening my eyes but couldn't, and the doctor would come in and lift my eye lid up and use his gloved finger to wipe a glob of Vaseline into my eyes so they wouldn't get dry because I was not able to blink. They had put me in an induced coma due to the burns to my lungs, throat and larynx and being on the respirator and feeding tubes. I spent the first three days there in coma. My chief had two firefighters stay overnight with me in my room. They held my hand the entire night and kept talking to me, telling me to pull through, and "you better make it, you're a great guy Matt."

After five days in the burn center, I went home to finish recuperating. I am still not back to work, but I'm getting better every day, and when I'm all healed and people ask me if I'm going to go back to firefighting again, I'll say yes, I absolutely will.

The following account is by Lieutenant Jarrod Emes:

Due to the location of the fire building, being in a rural setting, 2,300 feet of five-inch hose was laid from a nearby creek to the fire building, The weather conditions started off as a light snow, but as time progressed, the snow picked up and temperatures dropped. I was ordered into the building by the incident commander to supervise the initial interior overhaul efforts. I entered the D corner of the home and advanced a 1½-inch line into the home. The smoke was banked down to the floor and heavy debris was all over the home. I radioed to command and reported that we still had heavy debris burning throughout the building and that more personnel would be needed for the overhaul stage of the incident.

After operating interior, I needed to refill my cylinder. As I exited the building, I ran into Firefighter Matt Lutz and advised him to stay on the hoseline to warn other firefighters to stay to the left in the event that the floor was soft in that direction. Firefighter Lutz took a position at the corner of the room and was checking the area to make sure it was sound while he was advising all other firefighters to keep sounding the floor around him. The conditions at this time were still very smoky and the smoke had been banking down around the firefighters where you could not see anything. I had passed another firefighter, Rich Weidner, as I was exiting the building. I advised him that he would find Matt interior, and to listen to what he had to say and to be careful of the floor. I exited the building and I gave a report to command that spot fires were popping up inside the building.

A few minutes after my report, a muffled noise came over our radio, and then a clear, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Firefighter down and in the basement" was heard. Chief Hatt and I immediately made our way to the back of the home, as I ran into the basement the chief yelled, "Jarrod, find him and get him out." About halfway into the home (about approximately 25 to 30 feet into the basement), I found Firefighter Lutz lying belly up on a debris pile. I worked my way to Matt, untangling his feet from wire and other debris, and pulled him from the pile. I dropped him about two feet onto the floor, where I was able to yell at him, but he did not respond.

I loosened the shoulder straps from his airpack and pulled him free, but Matt was not moving. I tried to connect the waist straps from his SCBA around his leg to make a grab harness in order to pull him out of the building; however, I was unable to do this. I decided that I could drag him out of the building using his pack straps. Chief Hatt ordered Aerial 61 to contact the Berks Communications Center and advise the dispatcher that a firefighter had been hurt, that a "Mayday" was issued, that the evacuation tones should be hit and that an evacuation of the building had taken place.

Due to the radio system, the aerial truck radio is more effective in reaching the dispatcher than portable radios. Chief Hatt and I began stripping Matt of his gear. After I removed the SCBA mask from Matt, Chief Hatt yelled his name and he began to respond, but we could tell something was still very wrong. From the time the Mayday was transmitted until Matt had been extricated was several minutes. Suppression efforts took place and the fire was then placed under control.

The following are factors as noted by Lieutenant Emes:

* After the Mayday, command advised all departments of conditions and safety zones were laid out throughout the home.

* Chief Hatt contacted Chief Ronnie Wentzel of the Sinking Spring Fire De (a Pennsylvania fire instructor), who assisted with making the proper notifications. He also assisted with providing contacts for counseling and debriefing teams and assisted with debriefing members who were involved in the incident. Chief Wentzel had a similar situation occur to him in a fire that was featured in Chief Goldfeder's Close Calls column. Chief Wentzel also contacted State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann's office for notification purposes.

* Due to time of day, weather conditions and the extent of the fire, appropriate staging/standby companies were brought in to handle other calls involving weather conditions. Out-of-county departments brought in to stand by and cover calls.

* Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Mike Yeity was notified of the injury as well as Chief Hatt, who is the fire marshal for the area. Both investigated the incident and determined that the fire was accidental and originated in the wood stove.

* As crews broke down handlines, many 1½-inch and five-inch lines froze and had to be taken back to our station to defrost before being reloaded.

* Voids were found in the attic, and this caused the fire to spread through the home. At one point, two roofs were found on the building, creating extreme difficulties when crews began to vent the building.

* Fast action by personnel was taken when the Mayday was transmitted due to prior training.

The following account is by Fire Chief/Marshal Troy R. Hatt:

We were dispatched for a wood stove burning and a possible structure fire. This fire was reported at 12:02 P.M., the temperature was 28 degrees and 15 firefighters responded as a part of the first-alarm assignment. Our fire police captain got on location and stated it was a working fire with flames through the roof and out the front windows. I got on scene and confirmed that it was a working fire. The flames were out the roof and side A was fully involved from a mud room toward side D. The first engine and aerial on scene set up to attack and crews started the extinguishment. The other apparatus set up for water supply and laid a supply line to the creek at Fisher Dam Road and Berne Road. The crews were making good progress.

Suddenly, a Mayday was called during the operations (we had the fire 50% knocked down) for a firefighter who fell through the floor and into the basement. The suppression was still being done, but another firefighter grabbed the fallen one and held him. Other firefighters went into the basement to get him out. The fallen firefighter was taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital in critical condition with a Trauma 1 alert. The order was given to evacuate and regroup after this incident. Crews were sent back in to finish the overhaul and extinguish the rest of the fire. The fire was out and all companies went available.

I detailed two firefighters to be with him and let the department know how he was doing. Trooper Yeity from the State Police Fire Marshal Unit was contacted due to the firefighter getting hurt. As soon as the incident was under control, I checked on the firefighter who was hurt. He was getting better. He was off the ventilator and breathing on his own. He had no broken bones, but was very sore. He had a touch of pneumonia and was running a fever. The hospital stated he would be OK and was sent home. He still has a long recovery time, but is doing well.

During the investigation, it was determined there was one origin area, in the mud room at the stovepipe where it entered the wall. The most probable ignition source was radiant heat from the single-walled stove pipe. The materials first ignited were the framing and paneling around the pipe. The act or omission that brought the ignition source and the materials first ignited together was accidental.

The following lessons learned, comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on communications with the writers and others:

This "close call" provides a great look into a daytime, rural fire response in a typical volunteer fire department, a view unrealized by many outside that world. These departments, in so many cases, raise their own funds, have limited tax support, are challenged by daytime responses (staffing) as well as typical time-related issues common in today's volunteer fire service. And fortunately, in so many cases, provide an excellent service to the community, as is the case with the Union Fire Company 1.

For defined reasons, this incident could have resulted in the death of a firefighter, but fortunately, due to actions taken by the firefighters on the scene, he was rescued. Naturally, there is a lot we can learn from this. While reading the reports and in communication with the above members, several thoughts came to mind:

* Occupied vs. unoccupied. Once firefighters arrive on the scene, the determination must be made as to whether occupants are trapped. If they are not out of the house, or it is not confirmed, depending on fire conditions, the firefighter risk factors stay high and all possible attempts are made to search for and remove the victim(s).

* Hoseline placement. Getting a hoseline in place between the fire and those trapped is a critical factor. An engine company's ability to do that literally defines the skills of that crew. That's what an engine company does when lives are at risk. Once it is determined that there are no occupants, the factors change significantly. Keeping firefighters interior is a case-by-case decision. In most cases, we are going to operate interior and attack the fire. However, it should be done with as little risk to firefighters as possible. Does that mean we never go in? Absolutely not. It means that we should do what we can to save property with as little risk as possible to firefighters, and that risk changes as the fire progresses. Coordination and communication between the incident commander and interior crews is vital so the boss can determine the risk. Getting a line on the fire and getting a quick knockdown can directly lower the risk to firefighters. But when the factors provide doubt, get them out.

* Structural conditions before the fire. In this case, the fire was in a home that was a trailer (mobile home) that had been added onto. Yes, a mix between a mobile home and a building! The risks to firefighters in this kind of structure are clear. Voids, floors, gaps and electrical issues can create a worst-case scenario for firefighters.

* Structural conditions during the fire. I recently was looking at efforts by the National Association of Home Builders in orchestrating a major campaign against firefighters and the fire service. Its plan is to defeat the need for fire sprinkler systems in residential structures. The association even created a residential sprinkler action kit - which has been interpreted as an "anti-firefighter" tool - to help its members oppose mandatory fire sprinklers. How about that? My point here is that when we look at current residential building construction designs, we are seeing more lightweight construction, glues replacing metal and overall "cost effective" (read: more dangerous to firefighters!) construction. These buildings are questionable before a fire. What about during a fire? Just look at the construction sites in your first-due area. We must become aware of building construction and the fact that so many structures fail quickly during a fire, sometimes even before we arrive!

* Warning signs. The fire breaking through the floor was a clear warning and the risk vs. benefit of firefighters operating interior is applicable. A hole in the floor doesn't mean the building will collapse or that all interior operations should be abandoned, but it might. Communicating interior conditions to the incident commander lets the chief decide.

* Sounding the floor. These firefighters knew to sound the floor as they were advancing in. A good reminder to all of us that tools and thermal imaging cameras are essential when going interior. Don't leave the tools on the apparatus.

* Operating with a partner. This is critical and while in some very rare cases separation may be required, every effort should be made for firefighters to work as a team, using a simple accountability system, with a partner so that no one operates alone. In the case of departments that do not have adequate staffing, get more help automatically on your first alarm (as they do in Hamburg) and when you have smoke/fire showing, get more help on the road immediately. Get lots of help, and then when the incident is fully under control, send them home.

The issues of staffing: Think of the tasks that must be performed: water supply, venting, forced entry, search, rescue, stretching attack lines, command, safety (and much more depending on the fire). Think of pro football. There are the players on the field, playing in the game. There are the coaches on the sidelines who run the game and determine the strategy and tactics to win the game. And then there are the players on the bench - resources ready to go to work as needed. There are lots of players on the bench. How many players do you have on the bench at your fires?

Training kicks in. One point that really stuck in my head and I hope yours too was the fact that Firefighter Lutz held onto the hoseline. Forget the debate that some of you will have about him being in there; the fact is that he was, but he held onto that line. His training kicked in. Training firefighters on basic life-saving skills (staying low, wearing all your protective gear, no exposed skin, bringing in the tools, working with a partner, holding onto your line, etc.) can make the difference in getting home.

Firefighter rescue. In this case, the department did not have a rapid intervention team in place and that's a lesson learned for all of us. Firefighters were available to "muster" and they did help in the removal, but a dedicated rapid intervention team can make it much easier.

Many fire departments won't have a rapid intervention team dispatched until it looks like there may be a need. Anytime we are operating at a fire (or other situation) where one of our own can become trapped, a rapid intervention team should be in place. Many fire departments have a qualified and trained (not every fire department is a rapid intervention team; firefighters must be trained and qualified) rapid intervention team responding on the first alarm for firefighter rescue. However, in this case, the department did have available firefighters arriving or on the scene to assist Lieutenant Emes with the removal of Firefighter Lutz. And training on firefighter rescue by Lieutenant Emes paid off.

Thankfully, this firefighter is well on the way to recovery and this "close call" was just that, a close call. By studying fires such as this, the issues of building construction, staffing, risk vs. benefit, fire attack and firefighter rescue become much more real and point out the critical need for all of us to continue a strong focus on firefighting tactics.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.