Mayday! Why There's No Such Thing As a "Routine" House Fire

A single-family-dwelling fire is the most common type of structural fire to which most of us respond. While the house fire profiled this month, in the minds of these Pennsylvania firefighters, was a “standard†response, it turned out to be...


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Right after that report, Truck 51 was approaching the scene and Chief Wentzel asked for instructions. I advised him of the report of possible entrapment on the second floor. Wentzel and his crew entered on side A via the open garage door. Engine 85-2 arrived shortly after the truck with a crew of four. The crew pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch pre-connect off Truck 51 while the driver established a water supply from the hydrant 25 feet from the residence.

The Engine 85-2 crew entered through the front windows on side A. About the time the fire attack was initiated, conditions worsened and the wind picked up. Just before the rapid intervention team arrived, Wentzel reported that his crew was cut off by fire on the second floor and they needed immediate assistance. Just after Wentzel’s call, a Mayday was received from Lieutenant Matt Ahrens, who was with the crew from Engine 85-2 on the first floor reporting they were cut off by fire. The rapid intervention team placed a ladder to a second-floor window on side B and the truck crew bailed out. Around the same time, Ahrens and that crew made their way out the same way they went in.

I don’t think anything could have been done to prevent what happened. Nothing can stop the power of nature; i.e., the wind. We all thought this was going to be a small fire and we would be home in an hour.

Chief Scot L. Landis’ account:

As we responded to the incident, we were monitoring the fireground channel. About a mile out, we could see the column of black smoke. As we got closer, I heard the first radio transmission reporting that the Division 2 crew was cut off and needed a ladder to the rear. I remember saying to my crew members, “Things didn’t sound good. We need to be ready, we may need to go to work on arrival.â€

As we made the left turn onto the location, I heard the Division 2 crew request a ladder again to the rear. I began to wonder why they weren’t getting a ladder to them. As our engine came to a stop, I told Assistant Chief Tim Deamer to organize the staging area across the street from the house in the neighbor’s front yard. I was going to make a 360 of the building to get an initial feel/size-up for what was going on. I heard the Division 2 crew ask for that ladder again. My first concern was to find out why that ladder wasn’t there yet.

At this point, I became very focused on what was happening to the Division 2 crew. I passed the B side of the structure and noticed that the smoke obscured my view from about the eight-foot level on up. As I started to walk past about the midpoint of the B side of the structure, I heard banging and yelling. When I stepped closer to the building, I saw a firefighter in a window calling for help!

I turned and saw one of my firefighters, Aaron Johnson, and Lieutenant Mark Mundell, and yelled for them to get a ladder. They both turned and proceeded back to our engine, which was the closest engine to that side of the structure. When I arrived at the rear of the truck, I found that the only ladders left were two 35-foot two-section ladders. I quickly recruited two fire personnel to help me move one of the ground ladders into location.

We proceeded with the ladder raise. About a third of the way up, we were joined by Firefighter Bill Kerper and we completed the raise. The ladder hit the building to the side and just above the window. The firefighter in that window tried to mount the ladder, but he was unsuccessful and was forced to go back into the window. That allowed us to reposition the ladder down to the window sill. At this time, the Division 2 crew began to bail out on to the ladder head first.

As Wentzel began to bail, Kerper began to climb the ladder to assist him. I stopped Kerper so the team would have a clear ladder to use. Also at this time, Johnson and Mundell arrived back at the scene, put down a 24-foot extension ladder and came to assist the Division 2 crew from the ladder. As Wentzel got to the ground, the Division 1 hose crew declared a Mayday. Once all three personnel had cleared the ladder, I checked with Wentzel to see if there were only three members and then announced to command that the Division 2 crew was out and all were accounted for by name.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call: