Capt. Joseph Hawthorne, Shirley, Mass. Fire Department

When Joseph Hawthorne, a captain with the Shirley (Mass.) Fire Department was the first to arrive at the scene of a four-unit apartment fire, just yards from his home, he knew he didn’t have much time to act.

The dispatch had already said there was a person trapped inside and the three little kids running up to him, screaming that their mommy was still inside, confirmed every firefighter’s worse fears – a structure fire with an occupant trapped.

“It was ripping when I got there,” said Hawthorne of the fire that erupted in the middle of the night on Dec. 6, literally just around the corner, 300 feet from his home. “It was already ripping on the porch and going up into the second-floor. …I knew I had to act fast.” He knew the fire department was still minutes away and waiting would likely prove fatal to anyone still in the building.

He wanted to do everything humanly possible to save the kids’ mom – a heroic feat he successfully accomplished, pulling the mother from the burning building, at great risk to himself. For his efforts, Hawthorne is being honored by Firehouse Magazine as a recipient of a 2009 Heroism & Community Service Award. The local television station reported on the heroic act in a news cast that can be seen at

Hawthorne, who became a call firefighter with the Shirley department in 1980, and went full-time in 1987, was at home, in bed when the tone went out for the fire. He recognized the address and decided to go straight to the scene rather than driving by back to the station. During his initial size up, he knew there was zero time to spare and didn’t even grab his spare turnout gear in the trunk of his car.

“I probably should have grabbed at least the coat, but I knew there wasn’t any time for that,” he said.
Because the main entrance to the building was blocked by fire, he went to the rear of the 100-year-old apartment building and made entry from the basement living area of the split-level-type balloon-framed building that had originally been built for housing mill workers a century ago.

From all indications, the 46-year-old single mother, was trapped on the second floor of the three-floor building. The first floor contained kitchens for the units and the second floor was living area with third-floor used for bedrooms. The main entrance, on side A, was at street level, but in reality it was the second floor of the building, which was built into a slope.

“When I opened up the back door, the smoke was already banking down pretty good to the first floor,” Hawthorne said. “I found the stairs and started heading up. I could hear her screaming.” He said she responded to him calling out which helped guide him to her location.

As he climbed up the stairs and got closer to the victim, she stopped screaming which made it more challenging to find her in the worsening conditions.

“I was down low,” Hawthorne said, who was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. “I had about six inches off the floor that I could see pretty good.”

Hawthorne felt around and found the woman about four or five feet in from the top of the stair well. He grabbed her and pulled hard.

“We both kind of tumbled backwards down the stairs and land against the refrigerator,” Hawthorne said.

By that time police officers were on the scene and they helped Hawthorne get the woman out of the building.

“She was burned pretty bad and I don’t think she was breathing when we got her out,” Hawthorne said, noting that the woman’s face was blackened from soot and burns and her night clothes were in tatters, revealing serious burns. It was later determined she had been burned over 70 percent of her body.

One of the responders had a CPR pocket mask, and Hawthorne, who is also a trained emergency medical technician, went to work reviving the woman.

“I gave her four or five breaths and then she started fighting the mask and that was a good sign,” Hawthorne said.

While waiting for the ambulance, Hawthorne and the other responders used freshly fallen snow to pack on the woman’s burn before transport.

Hawthorne has no concept about how long the rescue took, or the length of time before the ambulance arrived, but he knows there was no time to spare.

“It worked out well,” Hawthorne said. “If I had done anything differently, or waited at all, I don’t know how it would have turned out.”

With the rescue complete and the woman on the way to the hospital, Hawthorne, who had received a burn on his hand, asked someone to go to the station and get his gear. He then turned his attention to fighting the fire that had been toned at 2:08 a.m., clearing the scene eight hours later.

Nobody went back in the building after Hawthorne had made the initial rescue, as the operations quickly went to a defensive mode. “The building was vacant at that point, and pretty well involved, so we fought the fire from the outside,” he said. He doesn’t know what caused the fire which had been under investigation by the fire marshal.

In the months since the fire, Hawthorne has heard the woman is doing well. She’s had many skin grafts, has had months of rehabilitation and, recently, her family got her a new apartment in a neighboring town. He’s met with the family, the woman’s mother and sister, at a fundraising event for the mom and her kids, but hasn’t yet met the woman he saved.

“I’m sure I will sooner or later,” Hawthorne said, not knowing how he or the woman will react. “…I know her mother and sister were very appreciative.”

Although he’s been recognized for his selfless act in his local community, the seasoned veteran firefighter doesn’t wear the label of hero very well, humbly deflecting the word.

“You have to save that term for the men and women in the military,” Hawthorne said. “They’re out there saving us every day.”