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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A few of our firefighters found family members and were in “family hug modes” as I made another lap to check on the half-dozen or so who appeared to be hurt the worst. All were talking, some were mad, but I felt that most of them would be OK if I let the EMTs work on them. I got back in the saddle and tried to get us back to the fire, and also was making sure the building did not surprise us again. It was only now that I saw that the town’s light truck was still flowing a 1¾-inch line supplied by the Kenbridge truck, sweeping the attic of the gym.

A safety zone was established near the building with extra caution being given to keeping an eye on the few pieces of facade that remained. We agreed that a backdraft or flashover had occurred, changing our entire operation in an instant. I climbed up and did a face-to-face with Firefighter Philip Armes, who had been the pedestal operator of Truck 9. His son, Assistant Chief Armes, was one of the firefighters who appeared to need hospital care and I wanted to update him on his son’s condition. I noticed that both Truck 9 and Kenbridge’s truck were coated with a black, tar-like soot that must have come from the explosion. (Later, in reviewing the tape of our main dispatch channel, I could hear different incoming and EMS units calling command at this time, but I was tied up in looking, watching and talking on our fireground channel, so for a brief time command was not answering and was “missing.”)

The crews in the rear reported building damage, but no one injured, and they continued to encounter and attack the heavy fire in the rear, while it looked like the aerial was making good headway out front while we regrouped. The available remaining fire officers met out front to discuss the operation, as well as safety concerns and tactics from this point forward. I appointed one of my officers as a safety officer as the remaining firefighters worked to recover the remaining handlines that had been in place at the time of the explosion.

We regrouped and once again made a fire attack. Bradford led a crew that made a secondary search of the gym for remaining firefighters while assessing building stability and condition. The South Hill Volunteer Fire Department truck arrived and searched for a place to set up operations at the rear (the C/D corner of the gym and its exposure). Instead, it ended up on East Broad, where the aerial will reach the rear B/C corner of Mitchell’s and covered fire attack and exposure protection of that area. (Fire hose and utilities prevented an ideal setup.) EMS was still treating patients and started to transport the three who had to go to the hospital: Armes, Bryant and Major. They were sent to both Farmville and Petersburg, the two nearest hospitals in opposite directions. Later, all three were treated and released from the hospitals and made contact by cell phone with fire department members or family members on the way home.

I asked for and received a plastic tote of fully charged spare radios that had been recently donated to our department by a larger city that upgraded to 800 MHz. These radios were going to be placed into service later that week and were charged and ready for use in my personal vehicle in the lot at the station. They were passed out to mutual aid and supporting groups throughout the rest of the night’s operations, helping with firefighter safety and coordination of mutual aid resources.

It started to feel like I had things “going again” as we continued to hear incoming companies calling enroute to the dispatch centers and me. It appeared that I had only three injuries that will need medical help, but still I had experienced a violent incident and my mind was trying to cover all the bases, passing the final decision to the EMS providers operating around me.

Bad news travels fast, and at least three more agencies were still responding to us when they heard of our calls for help. Many departments work close in southside Virginia, even though many of us are located far apart. Over the years, through our firefighter associations, mutual aids calls, joint training and working together, we have formed friendships and bonds that showed that night as help poured in from all over the area. For some reason, long distance calls were not getting through to our dispatch center, so help was being sent “just in case it’s bad.” Mutual aid continued to stream in, as fire and rescue companies from all over southside Virginia responded. Soon, staging areas were full of fire and EMS units waiting for assignments. Victoria Fire and Rescue was assigned to cover our station and any calls, and later helped place our units back in service as they returned to quarters.