N.C. Firefighter Recalls Near Death Experience, Recovery

Greensboro firefighters were battling an auto repair shop fire when the roof collapsed. Firefighter Matthew Clapp suffered severe injuries and crawed to the white light to escape.


May 18--GREENSBORO -- Pulling up to Import Knight Auto Repair on Jan. 30, Greensboro firefighter Matthew Clapp saw what he said he thought was a typical fire -- although it was a large one.

He and two other members of the Ladder 7 crew -- Capt. William Shane Boswell and Bryan Bachemin -- made their way in through a large rolling garage door and carried a hose line to attack the fire from the inside.

Through smoke that billowed out of the building, Clapp could see a car in front of him that was on fire, but he said he could make out little else.

"You can't see in front of you," Clapp, 38, said. "It was just hot, and you find the glow in the dark.

"I felt like we were doing an excellent job. Until the roof collapsed on us, I thought we were going to put the fire out."

When the roof collapsed, a part of a ceiling crossbeam struck Clapp.

"It knocked us forward, and I landed on my leg," he said. "There was no warning. I was just down."

Cause of the fire

The fire at 811 Elm St. near downtown started when a mechanic dropped a portable light, igniting fuel on the floor. Employees tried to put out the fire, but it quickly spread because of vapors. A car suspended on a lift caught fire, pushing the flames toward the roof.

And when the fire tore through the building, the roof caved in more quickly than expected, surprising the firefighters.

Trapped inside

Clapp opened his eyes to a shocking sight.

"We were buried, facedown. I saw Bachemin, and I tried to crawl," he said.

Clapp got free of the beam and other rubble and tried to get up.

"I tried two different times to stand, and I just fell," Clapp said. His leg "was like a noodle."

The firefighters were 30 to 40 feet inside the building. One of the other firefighters issued a mayday call -- the distress signal that means it's a life-threatening emergency. Meanwhile, Clapp searched on the ground for his hose line. Grabbing onto it would give the firefighters a way to feel their way out of the smoke-filled building.

He also spotted a bright white square of light coming from the door. The firefighters crawled toward the light.

"It felt like we were in there a long time, but it was only about two minutes," Clapp said. "Two minutes in a blazing inferno is a long time."

When the men made their way to the edge of the building, they saw other firefighters and emergency crews everywhere, Clapp said.

A few people spotted Clapp, saw that he was hurt and pulled him from the building.

Only then, Clapp said, did he realize he was in pain.

"It didn't hurt until I got outside and saw daylight. I had too much adrenaline to feel it," he said.

Crews cut off his gear, including his left boot. His left fibula was broken halfway up his leg and so was his left ankle.

At Moses Cone Hospital, a doctor told him that his skin was holding his leg together.

Clapp said he had been whisked out of the building so quickly that he didn't see whether the other members of his crew were out safely.

"Other firefighters kept assuring me Capt. Boswell was fine, but I didn't understand: If he was fine, why were firefighters still working in the building?" Clapp said.

He didn't know at the time that a firefighter from another crew remained trapped inside. Capt. Sterling Suddarth was another 20 to 30 feet behind where Clapp and his crew had been hit by the roof.

Recovery

Nearly four months have passed, The state's investigation into the fire has been completed.

But Clapp still has a limp, and he's the only one of the four injured men who has not yet returned to duty.

The night of the fire, Suddarth was taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem for burns and other injuries, where he remained for 18 days. The most seriously injured, he returned to light duty on Monday, but it's not clear when he will return to full-time firefighting duties.

Boswell sustained neck and back injuries. He was treated at Moses Cone and released the same night. He returned to work Feb. 14.

Bachemin was taken to Moses Cone for minor injuries and returned to duty the next day.

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