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...
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Biggest Decision Of My Life"
Three volunteer fire companies, along with several emergency medical units, were dispatched at 3 A.M. as a part of a first alarm for an apartment building fire with numerous people trapped. The building was a three-story, brick frame structure with 18 apartments. The floors were served by an open stairway at the front of the building and a closed stairway in the rear. A long hall on each floor that split the apartments from side to side connected both stairways. The first floor was half set into the ground at all sides.
I responded from our station as the captain on the first due ladder truck. I had a crew of five firefighters, including the driver and myself. As we responded, chief officers on-scene advised that several people were trapped and more were jumping from upper-story windows.
Our apparatus was the first to arrive on scene and I observed heavy fire conditions involving the entire front stairway. We placed our apparatus in front of the building to reach the third floor. Several police officers helped my crew position ground ladders to trapped occupants on all sides of the building.
While one of the rescues was being conducted, an occupant jumped from a third-floor window and struck a firefighter halfway up a ground ladder. The firefighter was able to maintain his grip on the ladder, but the occupant fell to the ground.
Another rescue attempt was made at a third-floor window. The window was approximately 70% involved in fire. It had been reported that a person had been seen just minutes before at the window. Without the protection of a hoseline, firefighters from my crew and I attempted to gain entry into this window. We were unable to do so and had to back out.
While my crew was making a third rescue from a window, the assistant chief of the first-due fire company advised me that an invalid was trapped in a second-floor apartment. I accounted for my crew and we entered the rear stairway.
At the second-floor landing we located the first-in engine crew. They had pulled a 13/4-inch handline to the landing and were attacking the fire in the second floor hallway. I observed heavy smoke conditions from the third floor above us and moderate fire conditions in the second-floor hallway. I advised these two firefighters of our orders and had both crews enter the hallway. One of the firefighters from my crew (a ladder company) took over as the nozzleman. The two others each partnered with an engine company firefighter. The pairs began primary searches on either side of the hallway as I pulled more hose into the hall and the nozzleman moved forward. After the first two apartments were searched, all of us moved down the hall to the next set of apartments.
While crews were searching in these apartments, I saw the ceiling behind us collapse into the hallway and onto the hoseline. I made an attempt to call the incident commander to notify him of our position and of the collapse, but he did not immediately reply. As crews came out of the second set of apartments, I attempted to call again, but there was no answer. After reviewing the audiotape several other units and chiefs are heard discussing exposure problems, electric problems, notification for fire marshals and the Red Cross - all while my crew is searching for reported people trapped on the same channel.