Floor Collapse: Firefighter Trapped!

A few months ago, I was at a serious fire in an industrial building observing the fire operations. As the fire department started its attack with several 1¾-inch handlines, one firefighter yelled to an assortment of white-hatted officers, "Why are we...


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We switched to a defensive operation to knock down the fire via the small windows above the larger intact replacement windows on side A. Twice, the fire was knocked down, only to intensify before a way to the upstairs was found. Our fire marshal arrived shortly after the second alarm. He was working with the owner of the building on the renovation planning and knew the location of the stairs and elevator shaft. The fire marshal met with me and I was instructed on the location of the stairwell and the general layout of the upstairs, and cautioned about the elevator shaft location.

I led three other firefighters into the structure and to the stairwell with a 1¾-inch attack line and various tools. The stairwell spiraled around the newly added elevator shaft. A contractor's ladder was mounted on the first landing, constricting the space and hampering our advance. We passed the hoseline under the ladder and continued upward. The fourth firefighter had to remain at that area to advance the line for the rest of us.

Beyond that area, smoke conditions were much worse and we continued upward cautiously. We carefully probed ahead and sounded the floor as we advanced. As I approached the second landing, I saw a window above the landing on side D. The firefighter behind me and I discussed taking out that window and determining whether we were still between floors or now located on the second floor. When I got onto the second landing, I found a series of bars to my left. At first, I was concerned that the bars might be some kind of gate blocking the elevator shaft and I expressed that concern to my backup firefighter. He replied that he thought it was scaffolding. I stood up to take out the window for improved ventilation and look outside to orient myself. As I initially hit the window, my backup firefighter began to step onto the landing.

All at once and with no sound or warning, the floor beneath us collapsed like quicksand. I was able to hook my right arm through the bottom bar of the scaffolding as I was being sucked into the floor. However, my left arm caught the other firefighter's low-pressure line, pulled his mask loose and pulled him farther into the collapse. He still had one leg hooked over the top step. We untangled in mid-air and he struggled, but was able to pull himself out.

My backup firefighter got quite a few breaths of smoke and was unable to help me get out. At that point, his mask had to be held to his face since all the straps were pulled loose. He told me he had taken a lot of smoke and had to get out. He told the third and fourth firefighters of my crew about my dire condition as he was evacuating. For a brief time that seemed like an eternity, I was by myself and hanging on for my life on the bottom rung of my lucky piece of metal scaffolding. My first inclination to action was a quick conference call to my Maker. Quick and simply I said, "God, if you don't give me the strength to get out of this, then I'm a goner!" I knew from searching the first floor for a way up that the ceiling was at least 16 feet high. I was totally aware of the fact that any fall from there would cause death or serious injuries to me. I remember struggling with all of my remaining strength to pull myself up out of the opening.

The fourth firefighter delivered "Mayday" and "LUNAR" (location, unit, name, area and resources needed) messages that were heard by our rapid intervention team. The third firefighter came to the landing where the collapse occurred, activated her PASS (personal alert safety system) device and grabbed my collar. I pulled myself back onto the landing and was sitting there on the top step with my feet dangling in the hole when I made a transmission to command: "Attack crew to command, be advised everyone is OK and we will be coming out shortly." I never heard a reply, but I didn't care. I was relieved to be alive and well.

The rapid intervention team quickly arrived, led by my younger brother, who is also a Cumberland Fire Department lieutenant. He asked if I was OK and I said I thought so. He said, "Come on, then, let's get out of here." I was exhausted and dazed, and I told him to give me a minute. He said, "Brother, you have 30 seconds or I'm dragging you down the stairs!" We left the structure together and once I was outside I was immediately evaluated by our EMS. My blood pressure was very high and my back hurt, so I was sent to the hospital to be treated and evaluated. My backup firefighter was also sent to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.