Chief Concerns: Ordinary Heroes

It was early December, not winter yet, but a crisp chill was in the air. The night shift for the “B” platoon at Engine 51, Ladder 29 and Battalion 2 had started at 6 P.M. There was equipment to check on the truck and a menu to plan for the evening meal. That night would bring numerous calls, but the firefighters expected as much. It didn’t take long for the activity to start.

At 6:45, with the coffee still warm in their mugs, a call toned out from the dispatch center for a structure fire at 1857 Conlyn St., a few blocks away. The firefighters raced to their apparatus. Battalion 2’s car pulled out first with Battalion Chief Edward Yaeger and his aide. Engine 51 and Ladder 29 closely followed the chief’s car.

In less than three minutes, the companies pulled onto the scene. At the end of the row of neat two-story houses was 1857, engulfed in heavy smoke pushing out of all openings on each level. Behind the heavy smoke firefighters could see fire blowing out from the enclosed porch and living room. This was going to be a “worker,” where multiple units would join the battle to bring it under control.

The first issue, life safety of the occupants, was quickly determined and it wasn’t good. People who had escaped from the house reported that one family member was still trapped inside. This heightened the tension level and made everyone move that much quicker. Conditions were ugly and no one could last long inside this place.

Engine 51 went right to work, stretching a hoseline to the front of the dwelling. It would be their job to move in with the first line and the first water, extinguishing visible fire as they crawled through the first floor.

Ladder 29’s job was different. Their main mission was search, rescue and ventilation of the property. The report of a trapped occupant made their job all the more vital. The firefighter in charge that evening, filling in for the vacationing officer, ordered two ladders to the rear of the house. Conditions continued to deteriorate.

The danger for a firefighter assigned to a ladder company is that sometimes they can’t wait for the engine to extinguish the fire. Not that they can’t, but they don’t. If you wait too long and the fire is severe, the survival rate of trapped occupants becomes zero. Firefighter Bill Hutchison knew this, they all knew this. So they didn’t wait.

Hutchison climbed the 28-foot ladder to the window on the first level in the rear. It was a small window, about 21¼2 feet square, half the size of a normal window. While his fellow firefighters steadied the ladder, Hutchison cleared out the glass and climbed inside, diving headfirst through the window. He landed on the kitchen sink.

From outside, Hutchison appeared to have been swallowed up by a smoky cauldron. Veteran firefighters later described the smoke conditions as so bad that many firefighters would not have attempted to enter, and could not have been faulted for hesitating to climb into the window. Yet Firefighter Bill Hutchison didn’t hesitate.

With zero visibility, a common occurrence in a fire regardless of what TV would make you think, Hutchison found his way off the countertop and began a search of the first floor. He could see the angry red glow of the fire in the front of the first floor and feel the heat as the engine crew moved into position. He crawled toward the dining room, on all fours, staying low to avoid the worst of the heat and smoke and located a woman at the entrance to the dining room. She was unconscious.

Carrying unconscious people is similar to carrying a large sack of potatoes. They don’t help much and grasping them with all of the equipment on can be a struggle. Hutchison grabbed hold as best he could and moved to the kitchen again, dragging the woman away from the fire. He reached the back door, but found that not only was it locked, but also large security bars prevented its use as an escape path. He had to make it back to his only escape, the window over the sink. He could hear noise from the front and the distinctive sound of water starting to hit the fire. He moved quickly, lifting the victim to the window and the arms of another firefighter ascending the ladder to help out. Hutchison passed the victim to Firefighter Eric Casiano, detailed that night from Engine 2 to Ladder 29. Casiano brought her down to waiting paramedics.

With the victim removed, there was now a new problem. Hutchison couldn’t get out the way he had gotten into the building. With his personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on, he couldn’t fit through the window without diving headfirst onto the ladder. Instead, Hutchison remained in the kitchen, through the heavy smoke and extreme heat of the fire. As Engine 51 moved their hoseline through the first floor, Hutchison tucked his large frame into a corner of the kitchen, hoping that the engine crew would win the race between water and fire. They did, moving quickly to knock down the flames in the enclosed porch and living room. As they moved into the dining room, Hutchison exited past them to the front of the dwelling.

For their actions, Engine 51, Ladder 29 and Battalion 2 were presented with unit citations honoring their teamwork and actions at the department’s annual Awards Day Ceremony in the spring of 1999. Firefighter William Hutchison was further honored with a Merit Award, the department’s second-highest decoration for bravery, for his rescue efforts at the job.

During Fire Prevention Week 1999, Hutchison was named the “1999 Firefighter of the Year” by the Philadelphia Fire Department Historical Corporation in its annual tribute to firefighters. It was a lovely ceremony with lots of media coverage and a surprise reunion – the elderly woman saved by Bill Hutchison was invited to the ceremony to meet and thank her rescuer. The meeting was heartwarming.

Yet, the Awards Day ceremony in the spring and the “Firefighter of the Year” ceremony in the fall were both tinged by sadness. One of the rescuers was missing. Firefighter Eric Casiano, who was at the top of the ladder to grasp the victim from Hutchison, was killed in the line of duty just six months after the Conlyn Street job. He fell through a floor at another house fire and sustained fatal injuries, a grim reminder of the uncharted dangers of this job.

Someone once said firefighters are ordinary people called to do extraordinary things. I disagree. When a person chooses firefighting as a career or raises a hand to volunteer as a firefighter, he or she leaves the ranks of ordinary people. Firefighters, all firefighters, are extraordinary people who very often do extraordinary things. Be safe.

Bernard D. Dyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department in charge of the Fire Prevention Division. He is also the department’s public information officer. Dyer holds a master’s degree in public safety from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.