June 10--WASILLA -- A smoky airplane hangar fire in December in the Southcentral Alaska community of Butte left a young Palmer firefighter unconscious, overcome by fumes at the top of a ladder as his small team tried to evacuate.
Fallout in the aftermath of the fire also led to the departures of the longtime chief and assistant chief of the Butte Fire Department this year.
A combination of faulty breathing equipment and toxic gases sickened the firefighter as well as two other responders, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough documents obtained in late May through a public records request.
All told, smoke inhalation sent seven Palmer and Butte firefighters and one medic to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center for screening after the Dec. 17 fire. Two needed about six hours of treatment to restore healthy blood-oxygen levels. The Palmer firefighter wasn't released until the next day. All are doing fine now, officials say.
But the incident revealed a more systemic and potentially troubling problem. Testing on the air tanks and masks worn by the more seriously injured firefighters revealed multiple failures, documents show.
Former Butte Fire Chief Charles Von Gunten said Friday he resigned in March rather than pick a battle with Central Mat-Su Emergency Services Director Dennis Brodigan over problems with the air packs. Issues surrounding the fire also led to the removal of Assistant Chief John Akers, Brodigan said in a separate interview. Akers said he wasn't at liberty to talk about anything related to the borough.
The borough's eight fire service areas are responsible for testing and maintaining the breathing apparatuses that firefighters rely on in potentially hazardous situations, Brodigan said.
"It's the responsibility of the fire service area chiefs to ensure that all of their equipment is inspected, maintained and kept up to standard," he said. "Normally our chiefs are very, very on top of the air packs. They're a vital piece of equipment."
Both Palmer and Butte fire departments are staffed by paid on-call volunteers who may have to leave jobs, family life or bed to respond to calls.
The story that emerged from the borough documents about the fire reveals a situation far more serious than initial reports indicated.
Just before 2 a.m. on a frigid mid-December night, the owner of an airplane hangar on Maud Road reported a fire with three aircraft but no people inside, dispatch records show. The hangar, owned by experimental aircraft aficionado Frank Knapp, lies toward the end of the two-lane road that backs up to the Chugach Mountains, becoming dirt before ending up at Jim Lake.
A lieutenant from Palmer's fire department arrived at the hangar first, followed by a Butte unit and more responders from Palmer and Butte. The lieutenant, Louis Larousse, established command.
It was 18 below. About a foot of snow surrounded the hangar.
Heavy, shiny black smoke initially surged from the eaves of the metal hangar, but no flames were showing, and the smoke got lighter except near a second-floor living area, the lieutenant wrote in his report.
Three firefighters and Palmer Fire Capt. John Prevost donned breathing apparatuses -- tanks like those worn by underwater divers, connected to face masks -- and entered the hangar. Finding no fire on the main floor, most of the group ascended a ladder to a second floor radiating heat to check for flames.
It was hot in the attic-like space. Prevost asked for a hole cut in a wall to vent the heat.
Then the trouble started. As the group upstairs moved back toward the ladder, at least one man started saying he didn't feel well. A 20-year-old Palmer firefighter lost consciousness at the top of the ladder. Prevost radioed down for medics to be ready. Responders outside heard the "man down" call, Akers wrote in his report.
A Butte firefighter emerged outside from the second floor, vomiting as he pulled off his air mask, Larousse wrote in his post-fire report. Dispatchers started checking on the availability of medevac helicopters.