Close Calls: An Extreme Close Call With Incredible Heroism - Part 2

This is the second installment in a multi-part series about a tragic fire that took the lives of two Bryan, TX, fire lieutenants and critically injured two firefighters in February 2013. This month, we look at the first-alarm response, initial actions and the emergency.

At 11:19 P.M., Brazos County 911 received a cell phone call reporting the fire at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 1500 Groesbeck Street in Bryan. The caller indicated flames were coming from the building, no cars were in the parking lot and that he did not know if anyone was inside. A Bryan Fire Department (BFD) first-alarm assignment was dispatched, which included Engine 1 (E1), Engine 2 (E2), Engine 5 (E5), Truck 1 (T1), which was using the heavy rescue truck as its apparatus was out of service, Medic 2 (M2), Battalion Chief 1 (BC1), EMS Supervisor (EMS1) and a police officer. Information received from several callers was relayed to responding companies. Indications were that it was a working fire. There were no cars in the parking lot, but no one could confirm whether the building was occupied.

At 11:24, E1 arrived first and reported that fire was showing and the company was going into an offensive mode. The E1 equipment operator (EO1) positioned the apparatus in the front (east side) parking lot on the Alpha (A) side of the structure and then pulled a red 1¾-inch pre-connect crosslay. The EO1 pulled a second 1¾-inch pre-connected yellow speed lay from the rear of the engine and placed it near the front door. E1 Lieutenant Eric Wallace (L1) passed command to the incoming officer and conducted a 360-degree walk-around assessment of the building. The E1 firefighter (FF1) removed the positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fan from E1 and set it near the front door. FF1 directed the PPV toward the north, away from the door opening, started it and left it at idle speed.

Lieutenant Wallace used his captain’s tool to break the glass out of both entry doors before E1 made entry because it was locked.
M2 and EMS1 arrived. EMS1 was assigned as incident safety officer (ISO). After shutting off utilities on the D side and performing a 360 walk-around, the ISO remained at the C side or C/D corner of building. EMS1 arrived shortly after Battalion 1 and Medic 2 arrived a couple of minutes later.

T1 and BC1 arrived and T1 reported “assisting E1” and BC1 reported a “single-story commercial building fire showing from the roof on Bravo/Charlie (B/C) corner.” BC1 established command as the incident commander and advised in “offensive mode.”

All arriving firefighters and officers reported that visible fire was through the roof and described the fire as “lazy” above the A/B corner and a little toward the center, not the B/C corner as reported initially by Battalion 1. Some members also reported seeing fire from a high window on the B side. No one reported that the fire should not be attacked offensively. It should also be noted that when Battalion 1 initially arrived, he thought the main door was on the B/C corner. He did quickly correct this, though, in the rest of his communication. There was an old window in the kitchen that had been covered over by renovations.

At 11:26, command requested a ladder truck and an additional engine from College Station and an administrative page that would provide additional command support. L1 and FF1 entered the structure from the front door on the A side with the 200-foot red 1¾-inch line. The incident commander acknowledged the entry.

L1 and FF1 turned the PPV fan toward the entry door and entered into a hallway with light smoke and good visibility. They turned left into the “bingo room” and began to advance the line. Conditions in the bingo room were hazy with 10-foot visibility. The smoke layer was within two feet from the floor level and there was no noticeable heat. They crawled 25 feet into the room, where visibility was reduced to about two feet, heat was getting more noticeable, and they saw flames overhead. They attacked the flames overhead by penciling the ceiling and extinguished the flames (blacked out).

T1 conducted a walk-around of the structure and forced open (to allow for egress by companies operating interior) and then closed each door, with the exception of the double doors to the dance hall on the B side. They came to a second door on the B side under the awning near the A/B corner. The door opened inward into the kitchen. The kitchen was well involved and fire began to immediately vent out of the open doorway. This fire condition was not reported to command. The door was left in the open position and T1 went to the A side door and entered the structure.
E2 arrived at 11:27, followed by E5 about one minute later. The E2 lieutenant (L2) conducted a walk-around while the EO2 set up a water supply from a hydrant across the street north of the parking lot.

The E5 lieutenant and FF5 conducted a 360-degree assessment of the building and then E5 became the rapid intervention team (RIT), positioned on the A side.

All initially dispatched BFD companies were now on scene. L1 was inside and one PPV was at the doorway. Flames were visible above the A/B corner. 

11:30 – Command reported “a lot of fire on the A/B roof.”

11:31 – After entering the building, T1 turned left into the bingo room and began a left-hand search pattern, intending to meet up with L1 and FF1. After going approximately 25 feet along the inside of the A side wall, one member of T1 lost the seal on the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepiece, forcing the crew to exit.

11:31 – L1 and FF1 became unable to pull more hose and radioed command for more hose.

11:33 – All three T1 members exited the building and two re-entered following the red hoseline to meet E1. They met the E1 crew soon after entering and L1 told them to pull hose. T1 pulled at least 50 additional feet of hose into the room.

E2 entered with a crew of two and a second 1¾-inch hoseline. E2 turned left into the bingo room and contacted Lieutenant Wallace face to face. Wallace stated that he had “found some fire, hit it and blacked it out. Now they could not see it (fire) and were looking for it.” L2 pulled his line back out to the hallway and entered the dance hall through the next door. E2 saw significant fire above their heads in the dance hall and attacked the fire.

11:33 – The dispatch center announced the 10-minute notification to command, which confirmed the notification.

11:34 – Command advised E1 of “fire through the roof on the A/B corner.”

11:36 – Command directed the ISO to remain at the C/D corner to maintain size-up.

11:37 – L2 asked command if they were making any progress. Command replied “I think so, I think so, it looks like the fire is diminishing.” The T1 crew, now low on air, exited the building as E1 proceeded farther into the room. T1 reported heavy, black smoke conditions and heat, but did not see fire during their time in the room.

11:38 – Command again advised that “it looks like improvement, not a lot of visible fire, just a lot of smoke.”

11:39 – L2 reported to command that there were heavy heat conditions in the dance hall; “hard to tell where the fire is; everything is above us; I think we’re making progress.” Command replied, “I think you are, the only fire is on the A/B roof line. We’re going to stack some fans.”
After meeting with E2 and T1 in the bingo room, L1 and FF1 continued to advance into the room. They again saw fire above them, as well as fire rolling up a wall and over their heads. When the firefighter attacked the fire, the fire blacked out, the visibility immediately turned to zero and the conditions became extremely hot.

FF1 checked the air gauges and determined that Lieutenant Wallace had one-quarter tank of air remaining, with FF1 having a little more than one quarter. Lieutenant Wallace told FF1 that they needed to get out. The firefighter turned on the hoseline and began crawling down the line toward the door. FF1 reported that he felt Lieutenant Wallace behind him touching his boot or leg as they crawled on the hoseline. Command was unaware that they were on their way out.

At 11:40, L1 called command, reporting Mayday conditions, but not using the word Mayday. He transmitted the following: “I have a low-air alarm, separated from my firefighter. I’m on the hose, on the red hose. I need some air. I’m scared.”

Hearing this radio call, FF1 realized he was no longer in contact with Lieutenant Wallace. FF1 stopped his exit and told command that he was on the red hoseline, couldn’t find his lieutenant and that he had been right in front of him. FF1 shouted to Lieutenant Wallace and shined his flashlight toward him. FF1 did not hear an air alarm or a PASS (personal alert safety system) alert and did not see Lieutenant Wallace. FF1 had a low-air alarm sounding, had not made contact with L1 and Command was ordering an evacuation of the building. FF1 came to a looped area of the hoseline while exiting, but was able to continue when his flashlight illuminated the hoseline. A short distance from the front door he met the re-entering T1, who directed him to the exit.

11:41 – When hearing and confirming the distress call from L1, command directed dispatch to activate the emergency evacuation alert tones and command announced on the radio for all units to evacuate the building.

11:42 – A second alarm was requested. Dispatch misunderstood the request and instead sounded the emergency tones a second time. A second-alarm fire response was delayed six minutes before the mistake was discovered in the dispatch center. It should be noted that the College Station Fire Department (CSFD) engine and truck were now arriving at the scene.

11:43 – Safety reported heavy fire through the roof toward the C side. At about this same time. Safety opened the C-side door and then the D-side door to look inside; in both instances he saw only heavy smoke and no fire. He left both doors open to aid ventilation and to provide a means of egress should it be needed.

BC1 stated that at about the same time that Lieutenant Wallace radioed his distress call, fireground radio communications diminished significantly. BC1 stated that numerous times, while attempting to transmit on his radio, there was silence or sounds indicating no transmission. Emergency button activation was reset by dispatch several times during the incident. Command resorted to face-to-face communication until another radio channel was utilized. The situation with the radios was inconsistently reported and was not noticed by most of the personnel.
Command spoke face-to-face with Lieutenant Pickard (RIT) informing him that Lieutenant Wallace was out of air and directed him and his RIT to “go get him.” The RIT immediately entered the structure.

At 11:44, a second distress call was transmitted by Lieutenant Wallace to command: “Low-alarm is off. Please give me air. I’m still on the red hoseline.”

Command ordered: “Follow the red hoseline out. Follow the red hoseline out.” L1: “Negative, Command, I can’t do it. I have stuff fall on the hoseline and I’m disoriented on it. Please send help.” It should be noted that radio recordings at this point do not show his low-air alarm activated – as it had previously – because his bottle was now empty. Command again transmitted: “Follow the red hoseline out. Follow the red hoseline out.” 
There were no more radio transmissions by Lieutenant Wallace.

E2 was told by command that Lieutenant Wallace was lost and to re-enter the building and get water on the fire. When E2 re-entered, they saw no fire in the bingo room, so they went back to the dance hall, where they again found heavy fire. They began flowing water into this area. After a few minutes, L2 returned to the door into the bingo room and discovered the room fully involved in fire “from ceiling to floor” and could clearly make out the three RIT members dragging Lieutenant Wallace toward the door while engulfed in the flames. L2 quickly got his firefighter and the hoseline from the dance hall to the bingo room doorway and began to flow water into the bingo room in an effort to cover the rescue operation.

11:46 – Command asked Engine 5 (RIT) for a status report and requested an evacuation tone from dispatch. There was no response from E5.

11:47 – Command ordered evacuation of the building and asked for a status report from RIT. There was no response from RIT, which was unable to hear transmissions due to a keyed mic and were also busy rescuing Lieutenant Wallace.

11:50 – Flashover occurs. RIT and Lieutenant Wallace were now all victims.

At 11:50, the T1 and E2 crews found and removed the RIT victims – they were well involved, on fire. The members moved them to the outside, extinguished the fire, started patient care and they were transported to local hospitals. The ISO returned to side A and assumed the role of EMS1 as injured firefighters were exiting the building. No subsequent ISO was appointed. L1 was removed from the building at 12:08 A.M.

Advanced life support (ALS) efforts were initiated at the scene and the firefighters were transported to St. Joseph Regional Health Care Center. In spite of the life support efforts that continued at the emergency room, Lieutenant Wallace died from the injuries sustained in the structure fire. An autopsy conducted by the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Lieutenant Wallace died as a result of flashover fire condition injuries.

ALS measures were initiated at the scene for Lieutenant Pickard and he was transported to the St. Joseph Regional Health Care Center. Lieutenant Pickard was flown to the University of Texas Medical Branch Blocker Burn Center in Galveston. In spite of all life support efforts, Lieutenant Pickard died from the injuries sustained in the structure fire. An autopsy conducted by the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that Lieutenant Pickard died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Two seriously injured Bryan Fire Department firefighters, Ricky Mantey and Mitchel Moran, were transported to the hospital and flown to the Blocker Burn Center. Firefighter Moran returned to shift duty one year after the incident. Firefighter Mantey continues to make progress in the healing and rehabilitation of injuries.             

Next: Accounts from Bryan Fire Chief Randy McGregor and other firefighters and comments by Chief Goldfeder