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As I finished venting the front windows, my low-air alarm was sounding, so I returned to the area were the hole was being cut. A firefighter who was standing there didn't have his mask on and was unable to help. (This was the person who was supposed to be on the turntable.) Other firefighters came to me and stated that the hole was cut, but the decking had to be removed. Their low-air alarms were going off and they were returning to get fresh packs. I switched packs with one of the firefighters who, at this point, was physically unable to help any longer and I returned to the location of the ventilation hole.
By this time, the wind had shifted and was blowing the smoke from side C to side A, in the direction in which I was going. I put the pike pole down to scan the roof and feel for the opening. I just missed the hole and down I went - right into the hole.
In the blink of an eye, I went from walking to lying face down. I felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder and instant numbness in my fingertips. I remembered yelling out in pain, feeling tremendous heat on the front of my body and thinking this will hurt when I stop falling. But then I realized I had stopped falling. All this took place in the matter of seconds - the pain, the thoughts, everything.
I tried to lift myself out of the hole, but the pain in my shoulder was tremendous. The heat was intensifying and I knew I had to do something. I then realized that I was lying on the roof joists (luckily, they were not burnt through). I rolled to the right (my left shoulder was the one injured) and onto a stable area of the roof. I was scared, nervous, in pain and disoriented. I moved toward the west and, as I crawled out of the hole to the front of the building, other firefighters came to assist me up. This is the first time anyone knew I was in trouble - I couldn't get to my radio and I was in the hole for only 15-20 seconds. I got onto the bucket of our tower ladder and turned to find flames about 10-15 feet in the air issuing from the vent hole I had been trapped in.
At this point, we all made it down and the roof sector was terminated. The building was a total loss and one other firefighter suffered a minor leg injury. I was taken to the hospital treated, evaluated and released with a lacerated bicep tendon, superficial wounds to my knees and left elbow, and an obvious case of "I can't believe I'm still alive!"
Here are what I feel were the mistakes that were made and explain what I learned from this fire:
Building construction. The first mistake was made while we were responding. I didn't consider the type of construction we were dealing with. It was type III ordinary construction. Frank Brannigan refers to it in his book Building Construction for the Fire Service as "Main Street USA." The report that the building had been on fire for 11/2 hours should have sent alarms off in my head. Ordinary construction has a considerable amount of combustible voids and given the time frame of the fire involvement and the type of construction, we were approaching (if we had not already passed) the point when defensive positions should have been taken.
Masking up. I put my mask on "just in case I fall through the roof." I shake my head at this thought now. That protection is there not only for the worse-case scenario, but for smoky conditions as well.
The PPV fan. I am a supporter of positive-pressure ventilation, but only in the right environment. It has been my experience that the fire must be under control before a PPV fan can be deployed. This fire was far from being under control. Not only did the fire have a considerable amount of fuel, but now it may have had more of the supply of oxygen it needed.
Radio communications. We have over a dozen channels on our radios and a plethora of agencies that use them - police, other fire departments, our own tactical channels, etc. I should have found the right radio channel before ever committing to the roof sector. This is an embarrassing mistake and I am ashamed that I made it. Not only was the channel an issue, but also all commands were coming secondhand when I should have been in communication with the incident commander.
Freelancing. The tower operator came up the ladder and on the roof. Nobody was on the turntable or at the controls in the bucket. The what-ifs in this case are too many to write. If you are on the turntable, stay there! Fire could cut off the firefighters and the ladder would need to be repositioned, or tools may need to be lifted to the firefighters.