FDNY Firefighter Christopher O’Brien knew things weren’t good when he and his crew from Ladder 56 pulled up on the scene of a working multi-story dwelling fire.
People were evacuating the building and there was heavy fire showing on the top floor. On top of all that, the initial call said there were people trapped in the building by that Aug. 1 blaze. It was also the day he became a hero.
The crew quickly made it into the building and found a woman in the stairwell with a chilling scream… “my babies are up there.”
“I felt so bad for that woman,” O’Brien said. “You just knew that her kids were up there. There was no question about that.”
O’Brien is a 2013 recipient a Firehouse Heroism and Community Service Award. Being modest, he quickly pointed out that he had help saving a life that day. But it was his efforts that saved a husband and a father of three from certain death in the inferno.
As O’Brien his crew made it to the apartment where the children were reported to be, they were met with high heat, thick smoke and heavy fire conditions. Knowing there were victims in the home, O’Brien hit the floor, and started crawling.
“We were pushing into the apartment, trying to make it into a back bedroom,” O’Brien said. One of the firefighters in the crew hit the heavy fire coming out of the kitchen area with the water can and O’Brien made it around the blaze heading for the bedroom.
“I got in maybe five or six feet and found the father lying on the floor, semi conscious,” O’Brien said. “I radio in a 10-45 [victim] and confirmed with my chief that we had a male victim.”
As the water can was just about empty, O’Brien pulled the man back into the hallway and got him out of the building for emergency medical care.
Just as O’Brien was pulling the man out, the hand line reached the apartment and his colleagues made that back bedroom and saved two young girls, ages three and four.
“Things don’t always end up that way,” O’Brien said. “We risk a lot all the time. We take gambles and this time, the reward was enormous.”
O’Brien said he learned the father and his wife made it out of the apartment with an infant and the man went back to get the girls, but didn’t quite make it, having been overcome with smoke.
The man suffered some burns and smoke inhalation, but survived as did the two girls rescued from the back bedroom, O’Brien said.
He said he was struck by how fast everything happened, including the development of the fire in the more than 50-year-old wood-frame structure.
“Things like this just don’t happen all the time,” O’Brien said. He added that he knows firefighters who have been in the fire service 25 to 30 years and nothing like what he experienced, saving a life, had happened to them.
The only thing that O’Brien said came even close to that was a fire in 1994 or 1995 when he located a small child in a building fire, but the child did not survive.
O’Brien said “excellent firefighting” by everyone at the scene and maybe a little divine intervention made the difference in saving that man’s life, and that of his children. It was a rush to make a dramatic difference in the family’s life, he said.
“I don’t think it gets any better than that,” O’Brien said.