Close Calls

We have been asking readers to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters' own words, can help others avoid similar "close calls." We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies. We thank Contributing Editors William Goldfeder and Mark McLees for helping compile these reports. We again invite readers to share their experiences. You may send them to Chief Goldfeder at

Be Aware Of Conditions

I was riding as the lieutenant of a three-person (imagine that!) ladder company that was dispatched for mutual aid to a working structure fire. The catch in this is that the initial crews had been on the scene almost 40 minutes prior to calling us. The weather was very cold, with a strong west wind (30 mph) hitting side 1 of the house. The house was a one-story, single-family, 2,000-square-foot brick ranch dwelling over a basement. The fire originated from a spilled kerosene heater in the basement and rapidly deteriorated the interior basement stairs. However, the exterior cellar stairs were intact on side 2.

The department that had the fire is a very small (one station) volunteer department with limited daytime staff. We already had one engine at the scene. Upon arrival, our chief instructed me to take a crew to the basement via the cellar stairs and see if we could get an angle on the fire. I had even told my "rookie" in the jumpseat to stay close, things were going to start falling apart.

We descended the stairs in a heavy smoke condition. Once in the basement, we began to encounter high heat and a lot of water on the floor. I told the crew that none of the previous efforts had hit the fire with the amount of water present. As the smoke would lift from time to time we could see how broken up the basement was. We subsequently found out that the homeowner had built the house, made that basement first, and lived in it while the rest was being built.

Subsequently, we left the basement as we found we couldn't get to the seat of the fire. We then took the line to the front door, and entered about six to 10 feet. Ordinarily, as a lieutenant I wouldn't take the knob, but, I didn't feel good about the situation. I was just about to tell the crew to back out when a large fireball came from the kitchen hallway right for us. The rear of the house had fallen off. Dick, the senior guy, came to my shoulder to point out the conditions, then he disappeared through the floor. I went next.

This all happened in about the count of 1-2-3-4. I tried to hang onto the line. I hit the floor on my left shoulder, and saw Dick, face down, covered in debris. It didn't make sense to me how easily I could see him at first. It didn't register that we had found the seat of the fire. I yelled at Dick to see if he was all right. He grunted. I grabbed his shoulder strap and told him, "We're getting out of here." The cellar stairs we had initially entered would be to my right. Off we went. We went through at least three rooms. Upon entering the fourth room, I recognized landmarks from the first effort, and saw the smoke rising fast in one spot - the cellar stairs!

I got Dick to the doorway and part of the way up, then I saw two members from our first-arriving engine donning facepieces. The adrenaline left, and I dropped Dick three times. I hollered up to them, "Hey, can you give me a hand here?" They looked down the steps, a bit surprised, and grabbed him. We were both transported to the hospital and treated for sprains and bruises. We dodged a bullet, and I'm thankful.