PENSACOLA NEWS JOURNAL

Teen in critical condition after rescue from blaze

18-year-old found unconscious in his bed, overcome by smoke
Brett Norman
@PensacolaNewsJournal.com

A young Pensacola man was in critical condition at a local hospital late Sunday after firefighters pulled him from a burning home in an early morning rescue.

Michael Gersham, 18, had passed out in his bed from smoke inhalation when firefighters subdued a raging kitchen fire and fought their way through to the bedroom. They dragged the man, wearing only underwear and socks, down a fiery hall and out the front door.


Gersham was breathing only four to six times a minute when firefighters got to him, but he was recuperating in a hyperbaric chamber at Baptist Hospital on Sunday afternoon, said Escambia County Fire Rescue Lt. Timothy Zoulek.


Zoulek said Gersham likely would have gone into cardiac arrest and died if he had remained another minute or two in the smoke-filled home, but he now is expected to survive.


Firefighters said the blaze, which gutted the kitchen and living room, began when the lid of an overheated electric cooking pan caught the kitchen wall on fire.


Mark Knobloch, 18, said he was about to go to sleep in his home next to Gersham's on the 3300 block of West Lloyd Street, when he looked out his window about 4:30 a.m. and saw his neighbor's kitchen ablaze.


He called emergency responders and began circling the house, yelling for anyone inside to get out. Gersham's mother, Bernadine McCloud, climbed out a window on the east side of the home, believing her son was behind her.


"She thought he was with her, but he didn't come," Knobloch said. "The whole time she was hysterical, hollering and screaming, `Get my baby out! Get my baby out!"


Terell Johnson, 19, a good friend of Gersham's who lives nearby, heard the commotion and ran to help. He opened the unlocked back door only to find a wall of flame, he said.


"I came around and tried to get the front door open, but we couldn't. We kicked it, but it's strong," Johnson said. "So we grabbed a bird bath and bashed it in with that."


Johnson said he was about to go inside when firefighters arrived, six minutes after receiving the call according to dispatch records. The firefighters told him to stay back.


"When we got there, fire was blowing out the front door," Zoulek said.


Firefighters Adam Bobe and T.J. Smith went in and quickly "got the fire in check," Zoulek said. With the house still burning, they began searching and found Gersham passed out in his bed. The fire in the kitchen began to flare back up, Zoulek said, but firefighters doused it long enough for Zoulek to go inside and help drag Gersham to safety, although he suffered some burns in the process.


"You've got to remember, we were wearing all that gear, so when we were pulling him out some of that heat got to him," Zoulek said. "The main thing though is the smoke inhalation."


Neighborhood friends of Gersham said his back was burned. They said he is a well-liked young man who likes to freestyle rap and is good friends with a tight-knit group of neighborhood pals who spend a lot of time together.


"There's not a person I've met who's had anything bad to say about Mike - except maybe he talks too much," joked Johnson.


Gersham's mother McCloud could not be reached for comment.


Zoulek hopes the Gersham rescue will raise the public's awareness of the value of career firefighters.


His career crew from the Brent Fire Department was the first to arrive, even though other volunteer stations were closer. He said the firefighting was a team effort that included the volunteers, but the response speed of the career team demonstrates the benefit of staffing stations around the clock.


"This is the first save for a career engine company in the county, and it wouldn't have happened if we didn't have 24-hour coverage at Brent. (Gersham) wouldn't have made it," Zoulek said. "We're not heroes. We're just doing our job, but it's nice to show people it can work, that this is what their money is going for."


In March, Brent became the second fire station in Escambia County to be staffed around the clock. The other is Pensacola Beach. Zoulek said Bellview Fire Department will be staffed 24-7 beginning in October.


The Escambia County Commission approved a $25 increase in residents' fire service fees last month, in part to implement a five-year fire protection improvement plan. The increase will help fund the plan, which calls for 44 new career firefighters, 15 new pumper trucks, two new ladder trucks and a new firehouse at the intersection of Mobile Highway and Michigan Avenue, among other improvements.