On The Job - Iowa: Small-Town Fire Department Manages A Big-Time Disaster

On the afternoon of Labor Day 1999, members of a small fire department responded to an incident that unraveled as the worst tragedy they had ever responded to. Steve Meyer reports on one of the worst...


RICHLAND VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Mike Hadley Personnel: 25 volunteer firefighters, four Quick Response Team (first responder) members Apparatus: One pumper, one tanker, one grass firefighting rig, one quick-response unit. Population: 532 On the afternoon of Labor Day 1999, the...


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RICHLAND VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Mike Hadley
Personnel: 25 volunteer firefighters, four Quick Response Team (first responder) members
Apparatus: One pumper, one tanker, one grass firefighting rig, one quick-response unit.
Population: 532

On the afternoon of Labor Day 1999, the Richland, IA, Volunteer Fire Department responded to an incident that unraveled as the worst tragedy the department had ever responded to, and one of the worst residential fire disasters in the history of the state of Iowa.

The incident challenged the small-town department and the entire county's mutual aid system as nothing before ever had (the department responds to about 30 calls a year, half fire and half medical). Yet, the emergency responders of this quiescent rural Iowa county proved that the camaraderie built from relying on one another through mutual aid during major incidents would equal them to any task, regardless of how devastating it was.

Blast Heard

The incident began on the afternoon of Sept. 6, just moments after Richland Firefighter Bob Lathrop drove past the home of Jerry and Juanita Usovsky. Lathrop was enroute to his home about three blocks away in the small southeastern Iowa community of 532 people. There were a few people in the Usovskys' yard, and several cars parked around the home. As Lathrop pulled into his yard, he heard a large explosion and turned around to see a column of thick black smoke rising into the air.

Lathrop raced to the fire station and within minutes was in the driver's seat of Richland's pumper. Training Officer Roger Wright climbed aboard the pumper as fellow Firefighter Bill Gill jumped behind the wheel of Richland's tanker.

When the three men arrived on scene, it was obvious from the huge clouds of smoke and flames shooting into the sky that this was a well-involved house fire. Wright remembers noting that the cars parked around the house would impede firefighters' ability to fight the fire. He also noticed something different. Normally, the Usovskys' front yard was shaded from the sun by their ranch-style home and surrounding evergreen trees. Today, however, the sun was clearly visible.

It was at that point that Wright realized the house was gone. As he momentarily surveyed the scene, he saw a horribly burned person walking toward him. He also saw what he thought were bystanders standing near the driveway.

Wright determined that something more serious than a house fire had just occurred - the house had exploded. A passerby on the street who saw it happen later reported that the house "just plain disappeared."

Command Transferred

Wright assumed command of the incident until Assistant Chief Caryl Cavner Jr. arrived. Wright and Lathrop were preparing to attack the fire when two more firefighters, brothers Dave and Ron Long, appeared through the smoke, pulling on their bunker gear. Ron Long and Lathrop grabbed a hoseline and directed it onto an LP gas tank sitting close to the pile of burning rubble that had once been the Usovskys' house. Cars parked in the driveway were also flaming, and Wright described the heat from the fire as so intense a person couldn't get within 100 feet of it.

A civilian who ran to the scene to help screamed for Lathrop to help her with a victim at the rear of the house. There, Lathrop found a severely burned person lying in the grass. Lathrop later learned that the victim was Barb Dyer, the wife of Richland Firefighter Greg Dyer. When Wright was told who she was, an unsettling thought came to him as he continued to fight the fire: his son had been playing with the two Dyer boys that afternoon, and he was worried the three boys may have accompanied Barb Dyer to the birthday party going on at the Usovsky home.

Wright estimates that within a minute of his and Lathrop's arrival, six Richland firefighters were on scene along with at least two members of Richland's first responder squad. The firefighters concentrated on dousing the fire while the first responders did what they could for the burn victims. Three severely burned people had made it out of the destroyed home.

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