"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...


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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.