Chicago Firefighter Michael Piccolo.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Chicago Fire Department
In even the most dire fire conditions, training and instincts can take over -- leading to rescues that would have never been made.
Chicago Firefighter Michael Piccolo experienced this first-hand last summer when he took a risk he says he will never regret taking.
For his actions on June 26, 2012 that resulted in the rescue of a man from a burning building, Piccolo has been selected as a recipient of a Firehouse Heroism Award.
As the alarm blared, Tower Ladder 21 and Engine 112 were dispatched to the fire shortly after 1 a.m.
The station was located only three blocks away from the blaze and as the bay doors opened, the crew knew it was a major fire.
"We smelled it like it was right there," Piccolo said. "We go on tons of runs, but this was something (different). We knew we had something burning."
They were initially dispatched to Irving Park Road, but quickly realized it was the wrong address.
"When we arrived on the scene, we noticed that there was no fire at that address," he said, noting that no residence on that street matched the address and that the person who reported it must have gotten the street wrong.
"We ran around the block on Larchmont Street to encounter this fully involved house. There was fire coming out of every window, door -- everything -- on this fire."
The fire at the single-family home at 1924 W Larchmont Street and had exposures to the left and right of it and it was decided the home where the fire originated couldn't be saved and focus was turned to the other two structures.
Piccolo said that the fire was so bad that he quickly began to think the worst. The area is populated primarily by families and he thought about his four children and his wife, Diane, who is a Chicago police officer.
"When I pulled up the first thing I thought was that we would have four or five kids dead."
The engine company dropped two lines in the exposure to the left when Piccolo said his captain motioned toward the other structure and said: "Go to the building on the East and see what you can do. It's 1 a.m. in the morning and there's got to be people sleeping."
The 10-year department veteran went by himself and pried open a rod-iron gate before kicking in the first-floor door.
He encountered heavy smoke in the first-floor hallway as he masked up before crawling up the stairs to the second-floor door, which he had to kick open.
"When I got into there it was black smoke and fire rolling all over this guy's apartment. It was brutal," he said.
He wasn't sure anyone was inside the apartment but kept screaming "fire department" as loud as he could with his mask on.
"I was screaming. I felt like I was screaming to nobody," he said. "It was surreal."
Piccolo was crawling while he continued to yell, searching the apartment for anyone who may have still been inside.
"As I opened the guy's apartment door, I could barely make the search it was so bad," he said. "I kept searching. I was low to the ground and felt the wall, felt the bedroom door, screamed 'fire department' and finally I heard a voice."
Piccolo woke the man up from a sound sleep and started shaking him.
"He woke up startled and got up coughing and screaming," he said. "I grabbed him and kind of pulled him out of his bed and all I can remember seeing is from his knees to his feet.
"I put his arms over my neck, over my back and kind of lunged him toward the way I came in."
The man began crawling on his own and the two men kept crawling until they could see street light coming from the exit.
"I could hear voices and people screaming outside," he said. "Things were going crazy and I could just hear it."
His captain met him and took the man, who yelled back "My mother is in the house."
Going Back In
Piccolo didn't think about it and turned right back around and went in.
The conditions had worsened and he was no longer able to make it back to where the man's bedroom was.
"By the time I got him down those 11 stairs to the time I went back up them, it was gone," he said. "He would have never survived."
The crew from Engine 56 led a line up the front stairs to fight the fire, but it would have been too late to save the woman if she was still inside.
They would later find out that the 80-year-old woman had lived on the first-floor and was able to make it out on her own.
Piccolo said that no one died because everything worked out perfectly. He gave much of the credit to the other guys on the scene working on the fire and stressed that it was a team effort.
"Sometimes you're just in the right spot at the right time, and that's all this was," he said.
Even though this wasn't his first fire, he said it was one he will never forget.
"I've been to a lot of fires and this is one that will never come out of my mind. It really hits home to think that was someone's whoever, uncle or dad, but thank God that he didn't die.
Despite having to go into the raging fire alone, he said that it was risk versus reward and that he would do it all over again.
"I wouldn't have changed anything I did," he said. "I think I did the right thing. I couldn't wait for water; I couldn't wait for another engine company. If I would have waited, he wouldn't have made it.
"I took the risk and it was worth it."