I was at the football field getting set up for the Relay for Life, an annual walking event to raise money for cancer research, when the pager went off. The unmistakable tone shattered the peaceful afternoon, “Central paging City Fire, Central paging City Fire, you are requested to the corner of Second and Main for a structure fire.” In an instant, I could feel the adrenaline rush through my veins, an actual structure fire, my mind started racing, would today be the day?
I had joined the volunteer fire department just 4 months prior and had not yet had the opportunity to make entry on a structure fire. We had been training, practicing with our air packs and bunker gear, I was fast, I was ready, or so I thought. Just a couple of weeks prior, we had utilized the old Police Department for a smoke house training. In that training, it was smoky and dark, but you could see the light through the windows. We passed the training with no issues, I knew I was ready.
I rushed from the football field to the Fire Station. On the way to the station, I drove past the scene, smoke was billowing from the two-story office building filling the streets with the choking fumes. Shit! It was taking too long to get to the station, there were already trucks on the scene, why did calls always have to happen when I’m not ready? Being late to the scene meant that I wouldn’t be likely to make entry.
When I finally arrived at the scene, I raced to the gear van to get my bunker gear, I suited up in record time. When I reported to the Deputy Chief, he gave me the news I never thought I would hear. “You and Scott are going in!” Wait, what!?! There was already a team inside did he really say we are going in?
As I was questioning what I was hearing, Scott grabbed my arm, “Come on man, let’s go!” Scott was a senior firefighter, he had been on the department for years and made entry into several structures. While I began to question whether I was ready or not, it did make me feel better that Scott was going in with me. Our orders were to go up the middle stairs and station ourselves at the top. The fire was on the south end of the building on the second floor, and our mission was to stop it from spreading to the north end of the building.
“You’re on the nozzle”, Scott commanded. Standing outside the burning building with the nozzle in hand, the adrenaline began to overcome me. I began to get tunnel vision focused on the doorway ahead trying to anticipate what lay beyond it. Directly inside the door was a stairwell leading up to a landing near the second floor. Empty barrels and other trash littered the stairwell. As we entered the building, I could see the base of the stairs, but thick black smoke enveloped the upper steps and landing. “Keep going”, Scott was pushing behind me “get up to the middle of the stairs!”
I stumbled up the stairs making it to what appeared to be the landing. I couldn’t really tell, all I could see all around me was a thick blanket of blackness. “What can you see!”, Scott yelled behind me. “Not a fucking thing!”, I shouted back. I knew I was on the landing, I had to be, but why wasn’t there any light from the windows in front of me? Which direction was I facing? Shit it was dark, I couldn’t even see the nozzle I was holding in my hands.
As I stood there looking around, trying to keep from hyperventilating and using all of my air supply, I saw a faint orange glow appear. It seemed like several minutes passed as I watched the glow trying to figure out what it was. As I watched the luminescent globe before me growing larger I began to notice a warmth overcoming my body. In an instant, the entire stairwell was consumed by flames. It was if the floodgates of hell itself were opened as the fiery blaze rolled across the ceiling over me and down the stairwell behind me. It all happened in an instant, but it felt as though I were watching it in slow motion.
Almost at the same time as the room burst to flame, I began to hear the horns and sirens of all the trucks outside blaring. In training, we were taught that sounding the horns meant everyone was to get out of the building. Behind me Scott was screaming, “Get out! Get the Fuck out!”. At that moment, my flight or fight instinct kicked in, and believe me, it was all flight! I panicked, I dropped the nozzle and turned to jump down the stairs out the door. I knew it was right behind me and I knew I had to get out of that building. “Grab the nozzle damn it! Get it and let’s go!” I could hear the urgency in Scott’s voice. I turned around, grabbed the nozzle and we fled the building.
Once outside, I couldn’t get my air-pack off fast enough. I was overcome by a sense of claustrophobia and I struggled with the straps to remove the confining mask. Finally removing the mask, I felt the cool outside air hit my face and took a deep gasp of air. A feeling of nausea instantly hit, my legs were wobbly as I buckled over catching my knees.
Additional fire crews had arrived on scene and firefighters were rushing around the building dragging hoses and setting up water cannons trying to control the blaze, but there was no use, the building was a loss. I just sat dazed incredulous that I had just experienced my first structure entry and nearly gotten blown up in the process.