“I Thought We Were Going to Die …Then I KNEW We Were Going to Die”

Aug. 1, 2003
This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow.

I have been in the fire service for 17 years, both as a volunteer and career firefighter/EMT-paramedic. I have been fortunate to run at some busy stations, and have received excellent training and experience in my tenure. I have also held every rank from assistant chief on down and continue as an active volunteer firefighter/officer and career firefighter.

I work for a small county fire department (150 full-time firefighters supplemented by 100 part-time firefighters) with an additional 1,000 volunteers in 31 companies. In 2002, I was injured on the job and assigned to light duty until cleared to return to work. I was very eager to go to my last doctor's appointment to be approved to return to work. I stopped by my firehouse upon leaving the doctor's office to advise my shift supervisor that I would return to work the following week.

While I was visiting, the companies in my battalion were alerted to a dwelling fire in which my firehouse would have been the third-due engine. I (of course) grabbed my gear and boarded the engine for the response, which is permitted. It was a beautiful day, the temperature was about 60 degrees with a slight wind at about 15 to 20 mph. As we made the almost four-mile ride to the incident, it became painfully obvious that we would be the first-in engine (there was a slow turnout by the first- and second-due companies because of waiting on the volunteer response). Also, it became clear that almost two-thirds of the first-alarm assignment, from two counties, would fail to respond or respond driver only due to poor volunteer turnout. The area is mountainous, with limited access, steep inclines and no local water supply, so tanker shuttles are our only source.

When the volunteer duty officer from the first-due station arrived, he reported smoke showing and that the house was well off the roadway. My officer in turn asked if he wanted us to lay a line in. No response from the officer. Perplexed, my officer told the driver not to lay in, anticipating a very long lay and a tanker shuttle operation. We proceeded down the driveway quite a distance before the house was even visible. The structure was a very large, 21/2-story wood-frame and stone house, with a 11/2-story attached two-car garage at one end (side 4) and 11/2-story office area in the opposing end (side 2).

What I saw didn't appear to be too serious - wispy smoke from the roof with a small finger of flame near the edge of the eaves at the connection between the office area and the main house on side 1; nothing we couldn't handle with our initial attack line.

What I assumed the incident commander would do (or should have done) and what really happened were two entirely different things. I have been trained that if you commit an attack line of 11/2 inches or larger, you must establish a water supply. And you need the full assignment completed or filled out for any fire in a building until you know it's out.

Unfortunately, the incident commander, even when told that a number of fire companies failed to respond or were responding understaffed, including the first-due truck company, advised the dispatcher not to replace them, that the fire would be contained and brought under control by the first engine company.

My supervisor and I talked about this as we approached the house and agreed that we would have our work cut out for us. We (just like we are trained) did not take the fire lightly, and had donned full PPE (personal protective equipment) as is standard for any structure fire. Two of us conducted a search to find the fire, while my supervisor and a young volunteer firefighter stretched the line.

We entered the house to find no smoke or fire on the first floor. On reaching the second floor, we encountered light smoke at the ceiling level (12-foot ceilings). After discussing it, we decided the fire must be in one of the voids around the area where we saw the fire, outside on the roof. We moved to a bedroom on the side 1/side 2 corner of the house. We found a moderate smoke condition, but no fire or heat. The room was 12 by 12 feet. Junk was piled almost five feet high in the center of the room and covered the floor, wall to wall.

My partner and I began to clear paths to opposite sides of the room in order to reach the windows. On reaching the windows, we both opened them to clear the smoke and began removing a large amount of discarded items out the windows to clear a space to work. The smoke in the room cleared almost entirely as the now 25-plus mph wind was blowing directly down the mountain and into the window at which I was operating. My partner and I began to place inspection holes in the walls and ceilings to locate the fire. We were stymied when each hole proved negative for fire or even smoke.

By now, my supervisor and one other firefighter had arrived on the second floor with 200 feet of 13/4-inch hoseline. I stepped out into the second-floor hall way to advise them that we had not located the seat of the fire and that we needed the next-due engine to open the first-floor ceiling in the office area where it joined the main house, near a large fireplace. As I turned to re-enter the bedroom, I could see out that same window and noticed what appeared to be liquid tar oozing out from beneath some shingles on the first-floor portion of the house. Until then, we had thought the fire was in the walls - but we were wrong. As I reached the window, I could see candle-size flames flickering around the shingle, which was below my line of sight. Realizing that the seat of the fire was in the void space above the office, but below us, I advised my supervisor of the same. My partner left with the other volunteer firefighter to advise the first-in engine of the fire's location and to assist with a second line to the first floor. This left my supervisor and me on the floor above the fire - but didn't realize it yet.

We were now 15 minutes into the operation and still had not put a drop of water on the fire. My supervisor and I were concerned, yet confident that the second and third engine and the truck would get the fire momentarily. In the meantime, we would keep our line with us to be defensive and protect the rest of the house if necessary.

As fate would have it, the second-, third- and fourth-due engines, the first-due EMS unit and the first-due truck had all become bottlenecked on the only road into the scene. In fact, the truck company had to back up the road nearly a mile after passing the incident, meeting the oncoming units head on, and not having anyplace to turn around or pass. Being inside, and not hearing anything to the contrary, we assumed that everything was well in hand, and that the units were on the scene, just slowed by the lack of manpower.

As time went on, though, we became increasingly alarmed by the lack of response to our requests by radio to the incident commander for vertical ventilation, backup lines and additional manpower. The conditions in the well-ventilated room had worsened, with visibility nearly zero and a slight, but noticeable rise in the temperature. At this point, I discussed the conditions with my supervisor and the possibility of us breaching the wall, close to the floor, to reach the fire in the void space. He concurred, and after considerable work we were able to open it with a hook.

Immediately, I was met with a blast of intense heat, and thick, black smoke rushed by me with tremendous force. I yelled for the line. Because of the amount of junk still in the room and the limited space, I was forced to try to hold open a section of wall to apply water while my supervisor tried to put the line in position. I was now standing. I immediately began feeling burns beneath my turnout gear, and advised him to hurry. He asked if I could see any fire, and I replied that I could feel it and hear it - and that "it" was going like a freight train!

He moved in and opened the line, only to get very inadequate pressure. He called the engine to charge the line, which had already been charged before it came into the room. The operator advised it was being pumped at the appropriate pressure. We decided that we must have a kink in the line. We also still believed that the fire was going to go out any minute and that our backup line would arrive. The seconds felt like days. I couldn't believe what this little fire had become.

We called on the radio several more times for our backup line and for ventilation, only to be advised that there was insufficient manpower present to accomplish either one. We still didn't fully understand what was going on from our vantage point. My position was rapidly becoming untenable. I was in great pain, and told my supervisor I was going for the floor behind him. This took a tremendous amount of effort, to get around and over the debris. I reached the floor and in my mind had made a mental map of the room. The doorway was about six feet directly to my left and the window to my right also was about six feet away. I was in the center of the wall.

As my supervisor and I frantically discussed our options (20 minutes had gone by) and next decision, the fire made the decision for us. Visibility was zero and it was hot, but suddenly the temperature increased sharply, with what appeared to be a tremendous increase in smoke movement. My supervisor stated my name in sort of a query. I in turn said let's get to the hallway and wait for the backup line. He made it to my location and I maneuvered to let him pass me. As he tried to negotiate a large box of books, he stood up, and that's when everything turned into fire.

Everything, the debris, the floor, the walls, the ceiling, even the air was on fire! It lit off with a loud thud. Witnesses later told investigators that the roof literally was raised up and an explosive-like force occurred. The wall on side 3 also separated 10 to 15 feet away from the building - on fire. The force threw me down on the floor on my right side, and my supervisor face first onto the floor. I knew a flashover had just occurred, but I was startled at the amount of force behind it.

As I tried to regain my composure, my facepiece crystallized, causing zero visibility in the mask except in two small areas on either side of the nose cone. I screamed for my supervisor. He answered and was somewhere to my right. I reached out and felt his coat. I told him we needed to transmit a Mayday. He stated that the radio was gone, it had been destroyed, that our hoseline was crushed in a partial collapse and we had no pressure in the nozzle.

I thought we were going to die. In my mind, I "knew" if we crawled out the door and to the left, into the hallway, we could simply crawl out below the fire. I asked my supervisor if he could make the door, but he said the door was "gone."

I couldn't see, but I knew that most of the ceiling and roof had collapsed into the second floor, cutting us off and severing our hoseline. Now I knew we were really going to die. Our only option was the window that was not visible. At the time my facepiece crystallized, I heard the high-temperature alarm on my PASS (personal alert safety system) device chirp once and quit. My supervisor had turned and was facing me in the room. We were both on hands and knees, crawling. I knew the window was somewhere, but I was terrified to get up off the floor. Because of the damage to my facepiece, if I got up, I was afraid it would fail completely.

Then, I felt nothing, no more pain. I could see nothing, and there was something wrong with my hearing, everything sounded as if I was listening through a seashell. I knew I would be dead in seconds or minutes. More disturbing was that I knew if I didn't act, my supervisor would die (because he wouldn't leave without me) and others would die or be seriously injured trying to save me. I indicated to him that the window was our only choice. I had to get up, as the bottom of the window was at least three feet off the floor.

I took what felt like the longest four steps of my life, waiting for the lens to fall or melt out of the facepiece. There was something wrong with the regulator, as it was taking considerable effort to draw a breath. While searching for the window, I fell into a pile of burning boxes at the base. I was now near panicked, as I was sure that because of my delay getting out, I would cause my supervisor/friend/brother to die.

I threw myself out the window onto the well-involved roof of the office. I wasn't sure what to do next because I couldn't tell how far up I was. I didn't know if anyone else knew what was happening to us. Should I wait for a ladder or jump? How long was this roof going to hold our weight?

The roof was so soft that the shingles came off beneath me, and my knees kept going through the roof. I crawled down the slope of the roof searching for the edge. I could hear and partially see my supervisor in the window, struggling to get out. It was six to eight feet from the roof to the window. I'm short and I wasn't sure if I could help him. I began to crawl in that direction when I saw that he was on his way out. A second wave of fear swept over me. I thought surely the roof would collapse under the weight of both of us. I made it to the roof's edge, and began to contemplate whether I was going to jump or try to hang off the edge and drop to the ground. I felt and heard my supervisor hit the roof behind me.

When he hit, the roof moved and shifted. This alarmed me, and I scrambled over to the edge. He asked me about the rest of our crew. Puzzled, I asked who he meant. He replied that some of the engine crew had returned to the second floor with a thermal imager. I was shocked. I realized that just after the flashover occurred, he had screamed their names to get out. I couldn't believe it. I had just jumped out of a room and left brothers behind.

My supervisor kept yelling at me to jump, but I couldn't see what was below me. I couldn't make sense of anything, I still couldn't hear right. My brain wasn't working correctly. I was utterly overwhelmed. I hung from my fingertips and dropped about five feet to the ground. I couldn't walk and I couldn't stand. I heard my boss hit the ground behind me to the right. We immediately were being "attacked" by the now-arriving other members. I screamed at the officer from the second engine to transmit a Mayday, that firefighters were trapped in the second floor. He said that my supervisor was out. I yelled again to transmit a Mayday and do a PAR (personnel accountability report), that others were missing. Little did I know that they had made it out due to the blast as well as being rescued by one heroic firefighter. They were fighting with me, trying to get my gear off. They finally ripped my facepiece off. They were talking, but I didn't understand anything they were saying. I was yelling at them for a PAR check, but I felt as though nobody was listening or understanding.

The other members were trying to drag us out of the collapse zone. I still didn't understand what was happening. I got to my feet and ran around to side 3 of the house only to encounter the top 10 feet of the side 3 wall hanging from the home well involved in fire. Building components were in the yard burning, the grass was burning, the smoke was banked down to the ground being pushed along by the wind from off the top of the mountain.

I turned the corner of the home to find our engine in the driveway with burning debris in the hosebed, the officer's side of the unit blackened. Our pump operator was in the driveway, very visibly upset. At this point, the second alarm and a tanker task force were struck. Prior to this, nothing else had been called, even though some companies never turned out.

The other members were accounted for. Fortunately, only one member had returned to the second floor before the flashover. He had been thrown through a heavy wooden banister and down the flight of steps. He was removed by another member entering and searching for us. That member and my original partner were both on the first-floor front porch preparing to re-enter with our backup line when the fire blew them out into the yard. One of these members, an 18-year-old firefighter, later was recognized for his heroism in re-entering the structure twice without a line to search for us.

I ended up with second-degree burns to my face where the hood and the mask meet, and first-degree burns on my chest, forearms and upper legs. I have permanent nerve damage to my ears. My supervisor suffered burns to his head, left hand, arm and upper back. Due to these relatively minor injuries, both of us were able to return to work within several days.

This fire made it clear to me how serious we must be in preparedness, training and response staffing. Unfortunately, due to our local politics not much has changed and this could happen again - but those of us who were "interior" would give less time for help to arrive before we bailed. We assumed too much. We assumed other companies were on the scene, we assumed additional lines were being stretched, we assumed more staffing was enroute. These were wrong assumptions.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communication with the writer:

These are some very lucky firefighters. I say lucky since very few "systems," "procedures" or anything resembling "command and control" had to do with their lives being spared. Clearly, these firefighters made it out due to their own experience and training, not due to their incident commander. But who is responsible for the firefighters? Yes, that's right, the one who establishes or assumes command. Those in command must be prepared, qualified and trained to take command - and understand the massive responsibility that goes along with it.

For those of you who may "establish or take command" at a fire and don't feel so good after reading this, now is the time to act. Get more training and do whatever it takes to insure your firefighters are protected. For those of you who oversee those who may "establish or take command," you too need to discuss this and determine "Could it happen here?" and then take action to minimize the potential. Better to face the preventable issues now than to witness a predictable tragedy later. It's essentially risk management.

These firefighters "got out alive" by accident, as well as by their training and experience. Although we are all thankful these firefighters made it, there are some very critical factors that need to be in place at any response to a fire, such as:

  • Trained incident commanders and sector officers
  • Adequate manpower
  • Timely response of appropriate apparatus
  • Personnel accountability
  • Regular FIRE training.
  • Pre-plans
  • And much more to better increase our chances of our firefighters getting home in one piece.

The writer states, "We assumed too much. We assumed other companies were on the scene, we assumed additional lines were being stretched, we assumed more staffing was enroute. These were wrong assumptions." Firefighters should be able to assume that their requests and these kinds of tasks are being taken care of by those entrusted to manage the incident. We can only hope that any firefighters who don't seem to take this stuff seriously are slipped a copy of this column.

This near tragedy presents numerous items for discussion, but certain issues are worth bringing out:

  • Volunteer fire department leaders often take a "head-in-the-sand" approach to response during known times of low, poor or nonexistent turnout. I couldn't care less about the labels "career" or "volunteer"; we have all seen both professional and unprofessional fireground responses and actions by both. It's about timely and qualified service to those who call 911 when their world is turning tragic.

If a volunteer fire department has a history of slow responses and inadequate turnout, it is time for a rapid change. Change can sometimes mean upgraded responses based on time of day all the way to becoming a combination fire department with career personnel to assure the members of the public get what they need when they have their emergencies. That's the only reason fire departments exist, although sometimes leadership forgets that.

Many areas covered by volunteer fire departments have added stations or equipment, or both, but ignore staffing, response and deployment issues. Fire departments must change to meet the needs of the communities they serve as opposed to focusing on issues of false pride. Painful? It can be, but what are we here for? One measure of a fire department's ability to serve is the responsibility of being able to respond with the needed resources when called by the public.

We recently received a letter from a reader about this issue. His fire district has bought millions of dollars' worth of very nice, top-dollar fire-rescue apparatus and equipment over the least few years and also built a new $7 million-plus headquarters. However, the department still must "tone out" numerous times to get a crew, or fails to respond and "gives the call away" to a mutual aid department that may or may not be able to respond.

Leaders of volunteer departments must be able to assure, under standard and normal conditions, that they will be able to "get out" with plenty of trained and qualified crews when dispatched. Unfortunately, it is still common in many areas (urban, suburban and rural) for a department to have to "set off tones" over and over to get a crew - or to hear the radio blast "Engine 1 responding driver only" or "Ladder 1 with low staffing." This significant problem is still not taken seriously by those responsible in many areas.

The issue of poor staffing is hardly exclusive to volunteer fire departments. Career departments suffer from this and it too directly affects the safety of the public and our personnel.

  • When you respond to an area with "hidden driveways" and related difficult locations, drop a flare or place a cone so all companies know where the driveway is.
  • When you arrive on the scene and you even think that you may not have adequate resources enroute, strike additional alarms immediately. Put more equipment and staffing on the road and keep them coming until you are fully confident that they are no longer needed. Unfortunately, in this case, the failure of some volunteer companies to get on the road with adequate staffing was ignored by the incident commander.

This applies to all fire departments: If you think you just "may" need extra response, transmit the additional alarms immediately, even before you arrive. Don't waste time waiting or thinking "we can probably knock this fire down." The results could be bad.

Some would argue, "We are putting all that equipment on the road for nothing," and I counter, "What did you get that equipment for?" Other folks would say, "Putting all that equipment on the road is a hazard," and to that I say, "Drive carefully while responding." If you arrive or are on the scene and determine you don't need the extra companies and firefighters, then send them home. But until then, make sure plenty of resources are on the way.

  • Radios are lifelines. Incident commanders must be able to monitor their radios or obtain resources to help that function be managed, such as by an aide.Companies calling for orders or requesting help, but not being heard or answered, is unacceptable.

  • If you call for additional resources and get no response, there comes a time where you and your officer must determine just how safe it is and whether it is time to get out. In this case, all civilians were out.

  • Over the last couple of centuries, we have come to the conclusion that water is effective in putting out fires. In hydranted areas, that's usually a basic task. In rural areas, it is a more complicated task requiring shuttle operations, dump sites, fill sites and a qualified water supply officer. If your fire department covers non-hydranted areas, now is the time to pre-plan and train for the delivery, the routes, the sources and other factors related to water that will let you deliver an adequate flow.

  • Flashover is a killer. The survival of a true flashover by interior firefighters is rare and shouldn't be counted on - odds are we will not survive. Training of all active firefighters using resources such as a flashover simulator and classroom programs is essential, as flashover continues to be a significant factor in the deaths of our brothers and sisters. Flashover can often be prevented through cooling with hose streams and through proper truck company ventilation, but like all fireground tasks, requires adequate and quickly arriving staffing led by qualified fireground commanders to be successful.

The writer made some noteworthy final statements as follows:

1. "This incident made it clear to me how serious we must be in preparedness, training and response staffing."

Getting serious about the job is what this column is all about. Hopefully, we all take the job seriously when the tones go off. Unfortunately, it's before the run when we tend to not take things very seriously. We let apparatus checks slack off, we don't always check out our life-saving tools and equipment, and we have been known to whine and moan when it comes to having to train. We need to do this stuff anyway and treat it seriously. Fire departments and their leaders must be focused on their departments' preparedness - before the run comes in.

2. "Unfortunately, due to our local politics not much has changed and this could happen again."

Does that sound familiar? Unfortunately, local politics can really screw up our attempts to do the right thing, especially when it comes to our safety and service delivery. Sometimes, firefighters have no choice but to make as much noise as possible to fix situations like this from occurring again.

We can appreciate that fire officers all want to be "nice" and "liked" by those they work with - but we can't. Being "nice" or "liked" has nothing to do with being able to prepare your fire department for this kind of incident. Forget about being "nice" or "liked." Prepare your firefighters now.

Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters' own words, can help others avoid similar "close calls." We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies. We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at [email protected].

William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues.

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