Photo credit: Chicago Fire Department
Fire conditions can quickly change at even the most routine of calls and firefighters have to be able to fall back on their training when they do.
Firefighter Larry McCormack was on Squad 5 on Aug. 25, 2011 when he pulled Firefighter Gerald Carter from a fully involved attic of a 1 1/2 story home in the West Englewood neighborhood.
"We were about a mile from the fire and saw smoke and everything else and we knew we were going to work," he said.
When he arrived on the scene, he began searching the rear of the structure. The first-floor bedroom was empty. He made his way up to the second floor and joined other firefighters who were already there.
Suddenly, there was a rapid change in fire conditions and an evacuation was ordered.
"It was one of those few fires I'll never forget," he said. "It just didn't feel right."
Firefighter Carter, who was the nozzleman, and Capt. Thomas Ruane held their spots and tried to keep the fire at bay as their colleagues made their way out.
Meanwhile, the flames took hold of a knee wall and the intense heat and smoke continued to worsen.
Carter became disoriented and lost control of the handline, sending Ruane down the stairwell.
"I saw him basically do a cartwheel down the stairs," McCormack said.
Once out, Ruane yelled "My guy is still up there! My guy is still up there!"
Since he was still in his gear and had just taken his face piece off, McCormack put it back on and darted up the stairs. He could hear the muffled sound of the PASS alarm as he headed into the structure.
At that point, Lt. Corey Hojek and Firefighter Jeremy Kaim had joined him and they all began searching for Carter.
McCormack followed faint sound of the alarm and found him with his head pointing towards him on top of the PASS device about 15 feet from the staircase.
He pulled him to the staircase where Hojek and Kaim helped lift him over.
Once there were down, other firefighters helped bring him out the rest of the way.
"It didn't look good. I thought he had passed," he said. "He wasn't really breathing. Things didn't look good."
While McCormack has received a lot of the credit for the rescue, he said that Firefighter/Paramedic Dan McVicker from Engine 116 is really the one who should be recognized.
Once out of the structure, McVicker took over, quickly getting care to Carter.
"Danny's really the guy who should be getting the attention. He's the one who saved the guy," he said. "He really kept his head, managed the scene, got him in an ambulance and got him critical care straight away."
While inside the home, Carter lost his helmet and mask, but McCormack said that the mask never fell off.
"When they were scraping his wounds, they found netting from his mask that was in his skin," he said. "It's not that it became dislodged, it actually melted to his face."
Carter returned to work at Engine 54 just a few weeks ago, and McCormack said that on his first day back at work he ask to be the nozzleman again.
"That, to me, is a hero," he said. "That's courage."
Looking back on the incident, he says there were a lot of factors that played a role in Carter being able to survive the ordeal.
"We got very lucky," he said. "Basically, it all boiled down to everyone on the fire scene. It all happened very fast. Within first 10 minutes this all went down. Due to their (the first arriving crews) discipline and positioning, that facilitated the rapid extrication of firefighter Carter from attic."
While RIT training helped save Carter's life, McCormack said that wearing proper PPE did too.
When he visited Carter in the hospital after the incident, he asked him if he had his waist straps buckled.
When McCormack grabbed the man he estimated at weighing close to 250 lbs. with his gear on by his shoulder straps, his pack didn't fall off.
"There's no doubt in my mind if his waist straps were not fastened, he would have died," he said.
The six-year veteran of the department said that his training helped him act fast and go off instinct when he went back in the structure.
"Nobody thinks it's going to happen to him. Certainly that day it did," he said. "You have to be ready for that, so that you act in a positive manner and don't freeze."