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T his is the second installment of my column about a close call involving the Westfield, MA, Fire Department (WFD). To recap, during a March 30, 2012, fire in a single-family-dwelling, Captain Rebecca Boutin crawled into a smoke-filled attic moments after it had flashed over and rescued Firefighter Stephen Makos. Firefighter Makos, running low on air, was lost and disoriented in heavy fire and smoke.
Last month’s column featured Captain Boutin’s account of the incident. This month, we feature an account by Firefighter Makos and further observations about this close call.
My sincere appreciation to Captain Boutin, Fire Chief Mary R. Regan and Firefighter Makos. Additionally, thanks to Firefighters Ray Neilsen, Kevin Tracy and Joe Coach, all the officers and members of the WFD and the Holyoke and West Springfield fire departments.
This account is by Westfield Firefighter Stephen Makos:
It’s funny how things can change so quickly. One minute, you are at the firehouse sitting around the kitchen table with your fellow firefighters, laughing, telling jokes and waiting for dinner and the next thing you know, you are low on air, disoriented, burned and don’t know if this is where you might spend the last moments of your life.
We received a call for a structure fire downtown. Captain Boutin gave us pre-arrival assignments while responding. My position was on the nozzle and to grab a set of irons (halligan and axe). Upon arrival, I noticed thick, black smoke from the attic, heaviest from the rear (C side). I extended a 1¾-inch line to an exterior B-side stairway and took over forcing entry through the door from a police officer. The door was difficult to force and another firefighter took over so that I could mask up and get ready to make entry. We advanced a dry line up the stairs to the second floor, where we found access to the attic stairwell. When we opened the door, we encountered thick smoke with no visibility. Captain Boutin called for water and we continued to advance to the top of the stairs. At the top, we were met with high heat and no visibility.
Entering the attic, there were no signs of fire, but high heat. We were thinking it was in the rear. Captain Boutin ordered the ceiling cooled until ventilation before we could consider advancing. I heard Captain Boutin updating the incident commander of high heat and asking about progress in ventilation. I could hear the crew working on the roof above us.
While operating the hoseline, I was knocked over. My mask was displaced and I developed a leak due to loss of seal in the mask. I made several attempts to re-position my mask, but I was still losing air. My low-air alarm sounded and I told Captain Boutin that I needed to change my bottle. I shut the bale down, moved past her and came off the line. I knew I was close to the exit because we had not advanced far into the attic. I became disoriented with no hoseline or wall and ended up moving away from the exit toward the center of the attic.
The heat became intense and I yelled out for Captain Boutin that I needed help getting out. I was thinking that other firefighters must be so close that they could hear me because I could hear them yelling for me. What I didn’t realize was that the heat and flame from the flash had forced them down the attic stairs.
Looking back, I realize that the second I knew I was lost and low on air I should have immediately called for a Mayday. I should not have assumed they were nearby. I kept feeling for a wall or structure, but I was having difficulty with self rescue and was worried about advancing farther into the attic. I eventually felt a solid kick to my shoulder, which was my captain searching for me. I climbed over her and bailed out head first, assisted by two other firefighters.