An Extreme Close Call With Incredible Heroism - Part 1

It is my hope that each reader of this column is somewhat already aware of the tragic fire that took the lives of two Bryan, TX, fire lieutenants in February 2013. The fire also critically injured two firefighters – all as a part of what was witnessed as an extreme act of heroism. Lieutenants Greg Pickard (32 years on the job) and Eric Wallace (12 years) lost their lives in this fire. In a brief description, Lieutenant Wallace became disoriented and Lieutenant Pickard died attempting to save Lieutenant Wallace’s life.

The “close call” aspect of this fire is the fact that numerous, but specifically two, firefighters escaped death while suffering extreme burn injuries while other members fully escaped injury. In cooperation with Chief Randy McGregor along with surviving Firefighters Ricky Mantey and Mitch Moran and other members of the Bryan Fire Department (BFD), we are going to share some critical aspects of this fire so that others can learn the facts, thoughts, message and lessons from the officers and members of the BFD.

My personal and sincere appreciation to Chief Randy McGregor, Through this tragedy, I have had the privilege to become friends with Chief McGregor and his members. Their handling of this tragic event and the future of their department is inspiring. Sincere thanks also go to Firefighters Mantey and Moran and their families, along with Battalion Chief Joe Ondrasek, Incident Safety Officer Lieutenant Mark Jones and all the firefighters and paramedics operating at the scene.

Thanks to the investigative staffs of the Texas State Fire Marshal, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, Chief Steve Bass of the City of Grapevine and Battalion Chief Ray Cummings of the City of Georgetown, as well as Stacy C. Wertman, safety and occupational health specialist, and Tim Merinar, safety engineer, with the Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, Surveillance and Field Investigations Branch, Division of Safety Research of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Morgantown, WV.

Last, but certainly most importantly, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Bryan fallen firefighters Lieutenant Eric Wallace and Lieutenant Greg Pickard. It is my hope that their families gain some level of peace knowing that firefighters around the world know who they are, what they did and the heroism they displayed and allowing us to learn from their sacrifice.

It should be noted that Lieutenant Pickard posthumously received the 2013 Chief Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award, presented to his family and department representatives at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, IN, in April of this year. Additionally, Firehouse® Magazine heroism awards were posthumously awarded to Lieutenant Pickard’s family as well as to Firefighter Mantey and Firefighter Moran for their demonstrated heroism. The award was presented in July 2014 at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, MD.

 

Department overview

The BFD is responsible for approximately 80,000 residents within a 43.4-square-mile area. An ISO Class 2 department, the BFD maintains an average response time in the City of Bryan of four minutes, 46 seconds.

The BFD has five fire stations and staffs five engine companies, one truck company, four advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, one battalion chief and an EMS supervisor (a fire officer/medic who can assume a command support role at fires) each day. Firefighters are divided into three shifts that work 24-hour periods. All engines and ambulances are staffed with paramedics in order to provide ALS. The BFD maintains a Technical Rescue Team that is trained in water, confined-space, trench collapse, high-angle and building collapse rescues and lost-person/wilderness searches throughout Brazos County and the Brazos Valley region. Many readers of this column may know Bryan from being adjacent to College Station, TX, home of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) fire service training center.

The BFD is a well-trained, well-equipped and well-led department. When we met with several of their members and officers, they displayed a high degree of professionalism and pride in their department. This same professionalism is evident in their respect to department standard operating procedures (SOPs) as demonstrated on the fireground at the Knights of Columbus Hall fire and clear in all related investigations. They too have learned from this fire and have taken significant and measurable action to implement change.

 

Incident summary

On Feb. 15, 2013, a fire started inside the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bryan, when an electrical fan cord shorted out. The cord ignited a plastic first-aid kit and extended to the counters and then to the remainder of the structure. The BFD was notified at 11:19 P.M. Multiple companies responded.

Lieutenant Eric Wallace, the first officer on the scene, arrived on Engine 1. He conducted a 360-degree walk-around size-up and determined the fire should be attacked offensively, since a small amount of fire was visible in a corner of the structure. After about 13 minutes inside the structure, Lieutenant Wallace and Firefighter Eric Juergen began to exit the building because the lieutenant wanted to check his air as the heads-up display was not operating. The lieutenant checked it and decided it was time to exit. As they exited, they became separated, and Lieutenant Wallace became lost and disoriented in the heavy smoke. He attempted to follow the line out, but a loop in the hose may have contributed to his disorientation. Fortunately, Firefighter Juergen got out.

Lieutenant Wallace radioed the incident commander and reported that he was lost and low on air. The incident commander directed the rapid intervention team (RIT), which was standing right outside ready to respond, to enter the building to rescue Lieutenant Wallace. The RIT duties were assigned to Engine 5, comprised of Lieutenant Pickard, Firefighter Mantey and Firefighter Moran.

Within minutes of Lieutenant Wallace requesting help, fire conditions changed rapidly. The roof on two sides of the building began to fail, and the fire broke through violently in the bingo area of the structure. Without hesitation, Engine 5’s crew (rapid intervention) immediately entered the involved structure without a protective hoseline to search for Lieutenant Wallace. They found him within two minutes, about 40 to 50 feet inside, which under very heavy fire conditions. As they were moving him to the exit, they were caught in a flashover.

When the flashover occurred, Engine 2 was inside continuing firefighting efforts in an adjacent area of the building. The Engine 2 officer came back to the bingo area, where he witnessed the crew of Engine 5 with Lieutenant Wallace in the room fully engulfed by fire. Even though they were engulfed in the flashover and their protective clothing and equipment was burning, the crew of Engine 5 never relented in their efforts to continue dragging Lieutenant Wallace out of the building.

When they were within approximately 10 feet of the exit, they collapsed from the burn injuries they sustained and were removed by other firefighters. All of Engine 5’s crew, as well as Lieutenant Wallace, were severely burned during the flashover.

All four injured firefighters were transported to the hospital trauma unit in Bryan. Lieutenant Wallace succumbed to his injuries shortly after arrival at the hospital. Lieutenant Pickard, Firefighter Mantey and Firefighter Moran were airlifted to the University of Texas Medical Branch Blocker Burn Center in Galveston. Lieutenant Pickard succumbed to his injuries later that day. Firefighter Mantey and Firefighter Moran remained in Galveston for more than three months, undergoing numerous surgeries, treatments and therapy. They continued treatment for several months after being released from the burn unit, and still face ongoing care.

It should be noted that while all Engine 5 crew members performed with exceptional courage and heroism, Lieutenant Pickard, without hesitation, led the crew into the burning building with the heroic determination to find and remove his brother, Lieutenant Wallace. After the flashover, Lieutenant Pickard, Firefighter Mantey and Firefighter Moran were removed, followed by the removal of Lieutenant Wallace. Of those attempting the rescue, Lieutenant Pickard received the most critical injuries and died in the line of duty later the next day.

Lieutenant Pickard joined the BFD in 1981. He was a member of the rescue team and of Texas Task Force 1. He was the urban search and rescue team manager. He was an EMT and held advanced firefighter certification. Lieutenant Wallace joined the BFD in 2000 and was certified as a paramedic and hazardous materials technician and held an intermediate firefighter certification. Firefighter Mantey joined the BFD in 2007 and was certified as a paramedic and hazardous materials technician. Firefighter Moran joined the BFD in 2012 and was certified as an EMT and basic wildland firefighter.

 

The building & the cause

The 7,400-square-foot building was used for meetings of the Knights of Columbus. The building was also used as a bingo hall and was available for rent and use by the community for other social events. It was originally constructed in 1945 and an addition was built onto the original structure in the 1950s.

The incident building was a single-story structure of wood-frame construction with exterior wall materials consisting of a partial brick veneer on three sides and cement-board siding that was applied over an existing layer of slate-type material. The roof structure consisted of a flat-deck roof over a portion of the building, covered with an asphalt/fiberglass roll-roofing material; and a gable pitched roof covered with asphalt composition shingles. The building had two different foundations. The newer portion of the building had a reinforced concrete slab foundation, and the original portion’s foundation consisted of a pier and beam type sub-floor structure with a crawl space below. The building contained no windows on the outside walls and the only openings provided were that of the required exit doors.

The interior facing wall finish consisted of quarter-inch common wood paneling applied over a layer of half-inch gypsum wallboard or one-by-seven-inch wood slats that were attached to the stud walls. The ceiling consisted of a suspended acoustical-tile membrane installed below an existing wood bead-board ceiling. Mechanical duct work for the heating and air-conditioning system was installed in the space above the suspended ceiling. The interior floor finish consisted of hardwood plank flooring over the sub-floor section of the building, and a resilient vinyl floor covering applied to the section with the concrete slab foundation.

The arrangement of the floor area on the night of the fire consisted of multiple folding tables with plastic tops and metal frame chairs with plastic seats. In advance preparation for a private function scheduled for the following day, each table was decorated with a plastic tablecloth and a small assortment of plastic flowers. Fuel packages within the building consisted mainly of the plastic furnishings – materials that are likely to burn with moderate rapidity or produce a considerable volume of smoke when ignited.

The double-door leaf assembly on the B side of the structure was the only exit door provided with panic-type exit hardware. Life-safety code provisions require that panic-type exit hardware be installed on all exit doors equipped with a lock or latch in assembly occupancies with an occupant load of 100 or more. The building was provided with emergency lighting units and internally illuminated exit signs to illuminate and mark the path of exit travel. The building contained no windows. It was not equipped with a fire alarm system or fire sprinklers. The kitchen vent hood was not equipped with a fixed fire extinguishing system.

Local and state fire/arson investigators determined that the fire was accidental and originated in the kitchen before free-burning above the ceiling.

Next: The first-alarm response

 

Find more information about this incident in the August Firehouse® Limited Edition Tablet App, available for download on Aug. 15. Search for “Firehouse Magazine” on iTunes or Google Play to view this content exclusively on your tablet.

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