From the Belleville Intelligencer

Mother saved from blaze
Firefighters say woman lucky to be alive after apartment burns

By Ben Medd, The Intelligencer
Local News - Monday, August 09, 2004 @ 10:00

Firefighters say a Belleville mother, recovering today at Belleville hospital, is lucky to be alive, after being rescued from an apartment so thick with smoke and flames that it was “like standing in hell.”

The Sunday morning fire was so intense when Belleville firefighters arrived at her Sidney Street apartment that the front window was melting, allowing flames to shoot out from the building. The inferno also burned through a hydro line on the front of the building, causing showers of sparks to spray out from the face of the building.

After dousing the flames pouring out of the front window of the second-floor apartment at 338 Sidney St. with a steady blast of water from their hoses, firefighters managed to knock the fire down enough to risk trying to rescue a woman they believed was trapped inside.

Two people, a mother and her daughter, had been inside apartment 3 when the fire broke out shortly after 4 a.m. on Sunday.

The daughter, believed to be in her 20s, managed to free herself from the apartment by jumping off the rear balcony, which hung just a few feet above the ground.

The mother, however, remained trapped inside the apartment behind a closed bedroom door.

As firefighter Jim Stather, a 19-year veteran, walked into the apartment after the front door was kicked in, the smoke and flames were so thick and hot he could describe it only as “like standing in hell, with fire all around you.”

The heat was too intense for the fire department’s new thermal imaging camera, which acts as firefighters’ eyes in a smoke-filled room, allowing them to see shapes based on their temperature. It took several minutes of dousing before the flames dropped low enough for the camera to have any effect.

Knowing there was still a woman inside, but that she was not responding to any of their shouts, Stather and firefighter Greg Sullivan pressed on into a hallway.

Sullivan found one of two cats said to be in the apartment, rushing it back out to safety, as Stather continued the search for the mother.

The smoke was thick as Stather felt his way down the hall. So thick that he wasn’t able to see the door leading to the woman’s bedroom as he passed. He made it all the way down to the end of the hallway before realizing he must have passed her room.

Doubling back, he was able to hear a faint coughing and using his hands to feel for the door, along with the thermal camera to search for the woman’s profile, Stather finally reached for the doorknob to her room.

“I found the doorknob and I stuck the camera in and I could just see her feet,” he said. “She was just lying there on the bed and I got her back up on her feet and walked her back to the balcony and had one of the other fellas who was there run back to get the oxygen from the truck.”

Stather didn’t know if the woman had woken during the fire, but said that the smoke had rendered her senseless.

“She was shaking, she was cold and incoherent,” he said. “One of the fellas took off his jacket and wrapped it around her and then four of us lifted her down off the balcony so the ambulance could take her to the hospital.”

Both the mother and daughter, whose names have not been released, but who have been described by the building’s manager as being “good tenants,” were rushed to hospital.

“The mother was in intensive care and I don’t know the conditions or reasons for her being in intensive care, but I know smoke would be a definite issue,” fire investigator Dave MacMullen said. “To my knowledge she wasn’t burned in any way, or suffering from heat, but she definitely would have suffered a lot of smoke inhalation.”

Despite having made it out of the burning building before firefighters arrived on scene, the daughter was also in need of medical attention.

“The daughter, she was described as being in shock and all she could say was, ‘My mom’s still inside,’ and she was not coherent,” Stather said of the younger woman’s state. “They kept her in for a long time because of her condition. She obviously had some smoke inhalation, and when they keep her in the hospital for eight to 10 hours, you know she got a good dose of smoke.”

But the outcome could have been much more serious, Stather noted.

“The way the smoke was billowing out the front of the apartment, I am amazed anyone even lived through it. Had her bedroom door not been closed and had we not had the camera with us, I don’t think she would have stood a chance,” he told The Intelligencer. “The majority of fires, people are generally able to get out well before the fire gets too bad and if they don’t, we usually have to get the coroner out. She really was a lucky girl.”

Even with her bedroom door closed, blocking the majority of the smoke from entering the room, MacMullen said the woman could not have survived much longer.

“She was extremely fortunate that for some reason she had the door closed to her bedroom because if that door to her bedroom had been open, I think we would have lost her,” the fire investigator said. “She bought herself some time by having the door closed, but not much. I think it was down to seconds or mere minutes before she would have succumbed to the smoke.”

Those who are not so fortunate to have a barrier to smoke, in such situations, face a terrible fate, he added.

“What it does is take away the oxygen in your blood and it starts to fill up your body and brain with carbon monoxide and all of the other miserable toxins that come along with smoke that is caused by burned plastic and wood and walls and things like that,” MacMullen said. “Eventually, it just knocks you down and suffocates you. It is an awful way to go.”

With proper fire prevention, however, MacMullen said everyone has an improved chance of facing such a fate.

“This was an excellent case of why we tell people when you encounter smoke to get low and start crawling,” MacMullen, also the senior fire prevention officer, said. “If you know where you are going and you practise your fire escape route, you know where the smoke is going and stand a chance of getting away from it.”

For Stather, he’s just glad luck was working in the mother’s favour, taking a potential tragedy and turning it into a good day for firefighters.

“It’s just a really good feeling when you know you were able to help someone,” Stather said of his career. “There are times when there is nothing you can do to help, so it’s a good feeling when luck works in your favour.”

The manager of the building, who asked not to be identified, said it would likely be between one and two weeks before the tenants of the six-unit building are able to return to their apartments.

The cause of the fire, which is believed to have originated in the front portion of apartment 2 is believed to be accidental, but is still under investigation. The damage has been estimated at $100,000, but could increase, pending insurance estimates.

The second cat believed to have been in the apartment at the time of the fire has not yet been found.