Laying prone on the quivering floor, I had been pushed down flat on my stomach by the searing heat and smoke. I was as terrified as I’d ever been as I frantically yanked and tugged on the inch-and-a-half hose line that was stretched down the basement stairs towards the engine company that had disappeared down the dark hole an eternity ago. What had started out as a small, concealed fire with light wispy smoke conditions had quickly deteriorated into this hellish, searing inferno that I was convinced was killing the three men below me.
Twenty minutes before this, my two man tanker company had been first on scene to this structure fire that had been dispatched while we were returning from a small brush fire. We were the closest unit and were first on scene. Light staffing that day caught us when this fire was reported during the height of our daytime volunteer shortage. These factors combined a two-man tanker company together with a two-man brush-truck company to make a primary search of the structure. The light smoke and little heat had lulled us into a false sense of security as we entered the single-family home. The concealed fire between the first floor and the basement caught us unaware. It spread quickly and weakened the floors we were standing on. When I found the first floor had been weakened, I sent out my partner to inform command as we were on the tanker and had no radio communications inside the structure. Unfortunately, another engine company with a hot-shot lieutenant arrived and, despite my fervent protestations to the contrary, he took his three firefighters down the stairs to the basement. I stayed to mark their exit.
Outside the air-horns sounded their three quick blasts, calling for an evacuation of the structure. I stayed, waiting for the crew to emerge from the staircase so that I could lead them to safety. They never showed. The intense heat burned me through my turnout gear as I screamed as loud as I was able through my SCBA mask into the abyss. I tugged on the hose and screamed at them to return, only taking a break to recognize the ringing of my low-air warning bell on my air tank. I had no idea how long it had been ringing, but when I noticed it, it was slow. Instead of a sharp ring, it was a slow ding that was getting slower as I was sucking as much air as I could to yell down the staircase.
This moment, this intense moment, was where I made a decision the likes of which I hope I never have to make again. I knew that if I stayed more than a few moments longer, I would suffocate and burn to death right there on that floor. I also knew that the men below me needed me to be there for them when they came out of the basement. They needed me to be there to lead them to safety.
It was a decision that made me choose between leaving my brothers to perish by saving my own life, or staying to face my own probable death. Ding… Ding… Ding… the sluggish bell ticked off my air supply, inching ever closer to the point where it would just stop, leaving me to asphyxiate.
That moment, I chose to flee and save myself. It’s why I’m sitting here typing this story.
I knew where I was in the structure. While it was pitch black from smoke and I was blind, and while every movement made my skin contact my turnout gear and burned me, I turned tail on my stomach and frantically crawled towards the doorway I knew it was only a few feet away. I knew I could make it. I knew my brothers were dead or dying. I knew…
“CRACK” went the floor as it opened up to reveal the inferno underneath my belly. I felt myself falling I saw the flames come up and envelop me. My vision turned from completely black to completely orange as I felt myself falling into the intense heat. I screamed and reached out ahead of me into the darkness. I clawed and flailed forward, grasping on to anything that I could grab to save me. God willing, my fingers found the concrete steps out the outside door to the residence. Inch by excruciating inch I pulled myself up and out into the light and the fresh air.
As soon as I was out of the house I stopped breathing as my SCBA mask sucked into my face for lack of air in the tank. I ripped it off of me and sucked in the sweet outside air. Waiting for me outside, about to try and find me, were the three firefighters who had went into the basement. They had evacuated through a basement door. Nobody knew that I was still inside waiting for them until they made a headcount in the confusing scene and found that I was not accounted for.
Looking back at this experience, I am proud of myself for finding out that I will go up to the last possible second to try and save my brother firefighters… although thinking about the decision I made to turn tail and run, I’m almost ashamed that I didn’t stay past that point of no return.
Of course, my policy is that I go home at the end of the day every day… but still.
Close calls are terrifying experiences. Thinking about losing any one of my coworkers or colleagues is unfathomable. It can happen, however, and we combat this reality with safety and organized command structures. This call was years ago in my career but it sticks in my mind at every call I’ve been to since that day.
Train hard. Keep your wits about you. Take everything seriously.