On Main Street: Heavy Smoke & Fire, Then Boom! Firefighters Down!

As mentioned in the past several columns, we normally don’t identify fire departments here, but several departments have told us that they are willing to openly share their stories. Again, that is a refreshing approach, as difficult as it can be. This...


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As I turned back, I saw that the second-story front wall of half of the gym was totally gone. I also saw firefighters kneeling on the second floor of that section, looking out at the street. They grabbed a ladder that was still in place and did a ladder bail/slide to safety, the last one making his way down carefully. All around me, I saw firefighters everywhere, on the ground, getting up or standing, sitting, lying in the street, some stunned. Many were holding their heads or were shaken up.

I keyed my portable radio and said, “601 to Blackstone. Send me every ambulance in the county.” The dispatcher replied, “10-4,” and I keyed up again and told her,” I have had an explosion and need every ambulance in the county now!”

I heard Assistant Chief Armes, and then saw him to my right. He and others were blown across the street by the blast. He was holding his head, screaming, “Get Sam, he’s on the roof!” I turned back and saw the aerial bucket swing clear of the roof, with firefighters in it. I yelled to the firefighter who was on the joystick, “Get Sam, he’s on the roof.” It took me a couple of times telling him that to realize that it was Sam and that he and his crew were OK.

He and I noticed lots of people in blue attending to the downed firefighters and I signaled him to get back on the fire. One of the “blue guys” ran up to me and identified himself as a Mecklenburg/Charlotte SWAT team member and EMT. He asked if the team could help. My reply was, “Yes, take the ball and run with it and work with our EMS branch.”(I wanted the volunteer squad to take care of EMS and my firefighters while the fire department units regrouped on the fire attack.)

These people, working with my local volunteer squad, triaged all of our members needing treatment quickly, helped package any who were to be transported by squads, and then helped with crowd control and evacuation of other businesses in the block. (After the blast, the attorneys and insurance company on the block were expecting the entire block to go, so many businesses closed and removed records and items. This secondary evacuation was underway with police assistance.)

In less than a minute, the ladder tower was back flowing water near the fire door area. It swept the attic of the gym, then the upper and lower floors of the restaurant. The incident caused a large roof collapse in the rear and the fire was venting heavily at the rear, relieving us of an immediate fire exposure to the front. The three-man crew that had been operating on the second floor of the gym later reported it being smoky and warm with limited visibility – then suddenly the room was filled with bright sunlight as the wall behind them was blown into Main Street (and onto the crews mentioned above) along with their handline. Firefighter Robert Abernathy, who was footing the ladder, believes that it cleared him and he was not injured.

At this point, I realized that the accountability tags had not been gathered from all incoming firefighters and mutual aid companies. I called the rear sector and asked them whether they were OK and to double check on all crews operating at the rear, then to get back to me with a damage report. I ordered everyone around me to “check on and find your buddy!” Several of us took a couple quick laps around the fireground in front of the building as we are searching for anyone that might have been trapped or injured. Remarkably, no one appears to have been pinned or trapped.

I met the Kenbridge fire chief face to face. He was wearing a suit (he is the mayor and funeral home director for his town) and his white shirt was stained with blood from a small cut on his neck. He told me that all of his people were OK, including himself . Later, he realized that his truck received heavy damage ($30,000) and that yet another close call had occurred when the operator of his top-mount pump panel engine went into the cab to retrieve his glasses at the time of the blast. The cab top was bent and the air horns and bar lights were destroyed, but he was protected by being inside for those few seconds. If he had been at the pump panel, the results could have been tragic.