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

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.

Wright asked the bystanders standing in the driveway whether any of them knew how many people were in the house at the time of the explosion. He was told 11. He did not realize it then, but these bystanders - all children - were themselves victims of the explosion. They had been seated on a couch in front of a picture window when the house exploded. The blast catapulted them through the window and into the yard.

Firefighter and first responder Curtis Reighard was one of the initial responders. His first action was to radio for mutual aid, asking the county's dispatcher to send all available departments in the surrounding communities.

Paramedic Mike Sellers, head of Keokuk County Ambulance Service in Sigourney, 23 miles away, was on duty and near the dispatch console when the first calls were received. Sellers has 14 years of experience as a paramedic. His service is the first responding ambulance for Richland.

The fire department's initial report indicated there were 11 to 13 burn patients. Sellers realized the gravity of the situation and ordered mutual aid from the Ollie and Packwood fire departments and ambulances from three counties. He also ordered air ambulances: one from Iowa City, one from Cedar Rapids and one from Waterloo, more than 100 miles away.

When Sellers arrived on scene 15 minutes later, he learned that the three severely burned victims had been removed from the scene to a staging area for air ambulances set up at a baseball field. Soon after, five more ambulances arrived on scene. An initial triage area had been set up on the street in front of the incident. A second was established at the ball field.

Sellers triaged Beverly Gartner and Barb Dyer as critical, with third-degree burns to 80% of their bodies, and ordered them airlifted to the hospital. Also airlifted was Jerry Usovsky, who was listed in serious condition. All three were sent to the University of Iowa Hospital's Burn Unit in Iowa City 60 miles away.

The other survivors - Trey Gartner, 10, in serious condition; Marlena Usovsky, 8, in good condition; and Josh Kleinmeyer, 10, in good condition - were transported by ground ambulance to the University of Iowa Hospital Burn Unit.

Locating Victims

Once the six survivors had been safely removed and the fire was extinguished, the next task became finding and removing the victims. Interviews with survivors helped firefighters determine that there were seven bodies in the rubble of the destroyed home. A moment of silence and prayer took place as firefighters prepared for the grisly task. Richland firefighters pulled six bodies from the basement of the home. A seventh body was found outside of the structure's remnants.

"One advantage of having a small, close-knit fire department is the firefighters know each other well enough to understand who would be up to the task of removing the bodies and who was better suited for other duties," Wright said. "Only those who volunteered to remove the remaining seven victims did so."

The state fire marshal was on scene within three hours. A statement was released later by the fire marshal's office saying that the most likely cause of the explosion was a buildup of LP gas in the house that occurred after Jerry Usovsky severed a three-eighths-inch underground gas line while driving a post in the ground for a dog pen.

The seven deaths that resulted from the explosion matched the worst residential fire disaster in Iowa history. Killed in the explosion were Juanita Usovsky; her 6-year-old daughter Ashley Usovsky; Dale and Marjorie Countryman of Birmingham, IA (Juanita's parents); Marlene Countryman and Dorothy Cunningham from Fairfield, IA (sisters of Juanita); and Ed Cunningham (husband of Dorothy).

Richland firefighters did not return to quarters until it was nearly midnight. Other agencies responding to the incident included fire departments from Packwood, Ollie, Brighton, and Sigourney (communities within 25 miles of Richland); ambulances from Sigourney, Washington, Fairfield and Ottumwa; the Keokuk County sheriff; the Iowa Highway Patrol; and the Washington County Medical Examiner.

Coordinated Response

As catastrophic as this incident was, a sense of organization and purpose prevailed over the entire scene. The incident was sectored into fire and EMS components, a staging area for incoming units was established, and an effective perimeter for crowd and media control was maintained.

One eyewitness said the house "just plain disappeared."

Both Wright and Sellers recounted that the reason such an organizational capability could be mustered - even in such a small community - had to do with the close association the emergency responders in these communities maintain. These are emergency responders who train together and play ball together. Everyone knows each other's capabilities. Both men also said there was never a question when an order was given or a need arose - the "can do" attitude prevailed.

"This was such a large and devastating incident that there was no way you could predict how people would react," Wright said. "Everyone understood the seriousness of the situation, and they did what had to be done. Whenever you asked for something, or ordered something it was taken care of without comment."

Sellers observed, "There was no question or controversy over who responded to who for anything in this incident. That was all taken care of over the radios while the firefighters and ambulance personnel were responding. They were all basically saying 'Send me where you want me and tell me what you want me to do.' "

Sellers has 10 paramedics to staff two paramedic units. Members of his staff carry pagers when they are not on duty, and respond on their own according to the situation. On this day, every one of his off-duty staff responded. He had enough paramedics on scene that he could assign one to each victim, along with two EMTs or first responders.

Photo by Steve Meyer
The photos above show the site of the explosion as it looked following the investigation.

Small-town camaraderie and fellowship may very well be a factor in developing organizational capabilities necessary for an incident of this magnitude, but it also has its downside. A tragedy such as this can have a traumatic effect on those emergency responders. Some of the horribly burned victims that EMS responders packaged into ambulances and burned bodies that firefighters removed from the basement were friends and neighbors that they had seen and interacted with every day.

Carol Reighard, a Richland first responder who was one of the initial people on scene, said: "It was devastating. At the time you do what you have to do. It doesn't really hit you then, but afterward it all sets in."

Fire Chief Mike Hadley was out of town when the incident occurred, and did not arrive on scene until after dark. By then, the last of the bodies had been removed and the investigation was beginning. Hadley is a 25-year veteran under the chief's helmet.

"My biggest concern when I arrived was making sure I still had a fire department when all the dust had settled from this," Hadley said. "Me being the chief, and not being there, it made it easier to take the burden of a lot of other things away from those who were there. Pressure from the media was almost constant the first two days following the incident. I took care of those details so that everyone who was at the incident could deal with the emotional stress impacting them."

Twenty members of the Richland Volunteer Fire Department answered the alarm. More than 50 emergency services personnel from the agencies involved responded. The first stress debriefing was held two days following the incident. The community held a prayer vigil for the victims and their families at the ball park that same night. This was followed by another community-wide church service vigil and debriefing a week later.

Photo by Steve Meyer

Even now, months following the incident, there is still considerable stress among department members. However, the debriefings and fellowship of the firefighters have apparently had the desired affect. As Hadley noted, "We haven't lost a member because of this incident, and I was worried that we would. We're a close department, I think that's still there."

Hadley's observation of the incident itself was: "The total response from neighboring communities, the county and the state was outstanding. Everyone worked together great, there was no rank-pulling anywhere. There were a lot of heroes that day. Not because anyone did anything extraordinary, but because everyone did the job they had to do."

Unique Stresses

This incident proved that the small rural fire departments that comprise much of the American fire service can, and do, rise to the call of incidents that would challenge even large metropolitan departments with vast resources. This incident also dramatically demonstrated the unique stresses endemic to traumatic incidents in small communities where emergency responders answer alarms involving their neighbors, friends, family and even fellow firefighters.

Hadley's comment, in recounting the capabilities of small community fire departments, underscores the spirit and professionalism of those who volunteer in these organizations: "Sometimes, the big-city people question how you can do things out here, and sometimes you question yourself, but you certainly can - we found that out."

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Garrison, IA, Fire Department. He has been president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association since 1989.