Dr. Harry M. Archer Medal
Firefighter James F. Mills, Ladder Company 176
March 4, 2003, 2150 hours, Box 55-1658, 1636 Pitkin Avenue, Brooklyn
Appointed to the FDNY on May 9, 1993. Brother is FF Richard Mills, Jr., Engine 248; father is retired Captain Richard Mills, Sr., Ladder 166; and uncle is retired Deputy Chief Joseph Mills, Division 3. Member of the Emerald and Holy Name Societies. Cited for bravery once previously. Resides in Sayville, Long Island, with his wife, Susan, and their son, Griffin, and daughters, Taylor and Madison.
Pitkin Avenue is a major shopping street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Among the renovations are alterations to these nearly hundred-year-old buildings. With the turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s, many of the building owners took drastic measures to ensure security. Many of these modifications have remained in place. Any veteran Firefighter who worked in that area will say, “A job on Pitkin Avenue is never easy.”
At 2147 hours on March 4, 2003, Box 1658 was transmitted. Within two and a half minutes, the first units arrived on the scene and were met with a medium smoke condition emanating from numerous occupancies. 1636 Pitkin Avenue was a two-story taxpayer-type building, housing four separate stores. Lines were stretched and forcible entry began.
FF James Mills, the chauffeur of Ladder 176, positioned his apparatus and began assisting in opening roll-down gates. Some 22 minutes into the operation, FF Robert Petrarca of Ladder 120 transmitted a mayday.
FF Mills went down the stairs to the cellar, put his facepiece on and began following the line into the cellar. He encountered Engine 227 members, who were operating their line into a common hall that ran the length of the stores. There were many radio transmissions from the units, but most alarming was the transmission from the inside team of Ladder 120, stating they were nearly out of air.
After communicating with Engine 227, FF Mills, knowing full well that time was critical, proceeded to crawl toward the front of the cellar. Due to the complexity of this occupancy, most of the members were searching the cellar of the corner occupancy (jewelry store) and not the cellar where FF Petrarca was lost.
FF Mills began crawling into this cellar. This was not an open, orderly area; this was a Brownsville cellar, filled with many obstacles and debris, which had built up over many years. The sprinklers were operating, so the heat build-up was not intense, but a highly charged atmosphere of dense smoke and carbon monoxide permeated the cellar.
This low-heat atmosphere allowed FF Petrarca to go further into the cellar area. It actually put him in grave danger since he quickly became disoriented and crawled in the opposite direction of the only stairway out of the cellar. The search rope of Ladder 120 ended at an unused staircase; ironically, this was the same point of the breach made later in the incident.
FF Mills, without the protection of a hand-line, began his search. No one realized the wall of the common hall did not go to the ceiling, which allowed the fire to cross into the cellar area where FF Mills had crawled, searching for the missing member. The only line (Engine 227) in the cellar was back at the stair area.
After searching for nearly six minutes and covering a distance of approximately 80 feet, FF Mills located FF Petrarca, who was face down and unconscious in two to three inches of water. FF Mills gave an Urgent message over his handie-talkie, notifying the Incident Commander that he had located the missing member.
Due to the stress and physical effort it took to make it to this point, the air in FF Mill’s SCBA was so low his vibralert was going off, but he continued to transmit his location, while trying to drag the unconscious member--who weighed more than 200 pounds--toward the stairs. The air in FF Mills’ mask ran out and he was forced to remove his facepiece. He, too, began breathing the contaminated and CO-heavy air.
Fortunately, members of Ladder 176 made a breach in the cellar wall, not too far from FF Mill’s location. This allowed members of Rescue 4 to enter, locate and assist FF Mills with the downed member. Together, they dragged FF Petrarca to the breach. (The breach was about half the distance to the stair.)
Shortly after the removal of FF Petrarca from the cellar area where FF Mills found him, there was a collapse. Both Firefighters would have been buried under it.
FF Mills’ act of bravery was accomplished under extremely hostile conditions. As Deputy Chief Daniel Butler wrote in his endorsement: “With all this going on, FF Mills may have left and communicated FF Petrarca’s position once safe outside himself. Instead, he decided he would leave when they both left. This saved critical time for FF Petrarca and prevented more severe damage from lack of oxygen and the real possibility of his death.” For his heroic actions, FF James F. Mills is awarded the Dr. Harry M. Archer Medal.—JTV