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Just after midnight, our police department received a telephone call from our sheriff’s department in regard to a smell of smoke in our township. Within 10 minutes of the call, we had a police officer drive by the vicinity of the report, but he saw nothing showing at any of the buildings in the area. Within five minutes of the officer’s report, though, a civilian saw smoke coming from Town Hall, and we were dispatched.
As a fire inspector, I knew as soon as the page went out that this was a working structure fire because the building is not protected by a sprinkler system and has no fire alarm system other than manual smoke detectors. I jumped on our first-due pumper with my captain and one other seasoned firefighter. We were the initial attack crew on this run.
As soon as we arrived, smoke was visible and the roof had just started to ventilate itself. On the A side of the building were many tall windows that had not vented themselves. Later in the course of the fire, I realized that we should have taken those windows out prior to our attack. Also located on the A side of the building were two doors located on the A/B and A/D corners of the building. Both doors were supposed to be locked, but during further inspection, one of the windows on the east door was smashed and the door was found to be unlocked. (The cause of the fire has not been determined.)
As we started to make our entry, we noticed through the smoke that there were stairs leading down to the basement, as well as stairs leading up to the main room of the building. The other firefighter took the line and started to make his ascent up the stairs with the captain as I fed enough hose for the attack. Once I accomplished that task, I started to make my way up to the landing at the top of the steps. As I did this, our second attack crew gained entry and was backing us up. As I reached the rest of my crew at the top of the steps, my partners were trying to gain access to the room in front of us, but the door was locked.
As the nozzleman tried to work the pipe around the cramped area, I suddenly felt extreme heat that started at the top of my head and worked its way down. It felt as if someone had poured scalding water all over my body. At the same time, my captain yelled for us to evacuate before the fire could flash over on us. Little did we know that an access hatch was located at the top of the ceiling that we had blown open with the nozzle, and all of the heat that had built up in the common attic was coming down on us.
With little time to react, my captain grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to go back down the staircase. However, as the second crew was bailing out, I was pushed into something that was blocking our egress path. With my captain still pushing me out, this unknown object ended up right between my legs. Fortunately, I managed to lift my leg over it just in time to get out of the building.
While exiting, I tried to take a breather and absorb what had just happened. I turned to the second attack crew to ask if they had seen the rest of my crew exit. They said they had not. Without thinking, I rushed back into the building to try to find my crewmembers. I found my crew 10 feet inside the building, trying to push past a stepladder that was wedged tightly between both walls of the stairway to make their exit. Finding one crewmember’s hands, I freed the stepladder and pushed it off to one side. I then made sure that my entire crew had gotten past the obstacle so we could make it safely outside to regroup and figure out what our next mode of attack would be.