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In the past year, I have come to know the Keokuk Fire Department (KFD) in Iowa through my friendship with Chief Mark Wessel. Previously, I was familiar with the fire through official documents, but now I have gained much more knowledge of the fire – and the chief, who courageously makes it clear that he was responsible for the fireground and his firefighters that day.
Firehouse® Contributing Editor Steve Meyer and I worked together on this column. Steve reported on the incident, obtained official investigation reports and interviewed Wessel at length. Additional facts and commentary are based on my subsequent discussions and meetings with Wessel.
While we are confident that every “Close Call” we publish teaches significant lessons, there are some that make clear what can happen – and what all of us can do to prevent injury and death to our firefighters. Please read this gripping story as well as our related recommended practices and comments.
On the morning of Dec. 22, 1999, all five of KFD’s on-duty firefighters responded to a car accident. While at the accident, they received another alarm reporting a fire in a two-story, balloon-frame, duplex-style apartment building with victims trapped. The apparatus (a TeleSqurt and a rescue pumper) responded with the shift commander (assistant chief) and a driver on the TeleSqurt (the third firefighter had transported with EMS) and a lieutenant and a driver on the rescue pumper.
Before the crews even arrived at 8:27 A.M., it was already every firefighter’s worst nightmare: a 26-year old woman and her 4-year-old son were standing on a roof, the mother screaming that three more of her children were trapped inside. She had escaped through an upstairs window. (KFD serves 12,000 residents with a full-time career staff of 19 members and covers 10 square miles. Each year, the department responds to 850 to 900 alarms, 60% of which are medical, and 25 to 30 working fires.)
Wessel responded to the incident at 8:31 by first stopping at the hospital to pick up the firefighter who had assisted EMS, bringing the on-duty force to six. Severely understaffed, the firefighters and Wessel had to make critical decisions in an emotionally charged situation when only seconds meant the difference between a heroic, by-the-book rescue and the tragedy that it became.
The fire, caused by combustible materials left on a stove by the 4-year-old child, claimed six lives – three firefighters, toddler twins and their 7-year-old sister. There was a smoke detector in the house, but fire investigators later determined the battery was dead. Just as the chief arrived, he saw the first baby being brought out of the house and handed off to two police officers to transport to the hospital. The firefighters continued searching and Wessel had command. Within minutes, another baby was brought out and handed to the chief, who started CPR. The firefighters went back inside, continuing their searches. No EMS units were available and the nearest EMS mutual aid is 25 miles away; Wessel was faced with a decision.
A police commander asked the chief what needed to be done. Wessel decided the child had to go to the hospital and, with no other resources available, he loaded up in the police car, transported and was back in three minutes. To the veteran chief, the fire appeared to be “routine” – but while he was away, the house flashed over. When this occurred, three firefighters were inside, the lieutenant was on the hydrant and the firefighter he had brought back from the hospital was in front, alone, on the exterior advancing a hoseline.
Three of the five on-duty KFD members died attempting to save those kids:
- Assistant Chief Dave McNally, 48, a 25-year veteran of the department. He was married and had three children.
- Jason Biting, 29, who had been on the department for 61¼2 years and had a wife and three children.
- Nate Tuck, 39, a 41¼2-year member of the department who had a wife and two children.