I’ve always been fascinated with fire…first playing with it, then fighting it, and now one of my core spiritual practices is a fire ceremony. Anyway rewind a few years…
I was a 20 year old college student/ firefighter-EMT and it was 3am. I was dead asleep when I was jolted awake by the squeal of my fire dept pager. The call was for a fire alarm at the house next door to me. This particular night I just did not feel like getting out of bed as 99% of the time, fire alarms are false. So, I threw on the scanner to see what the police would say when they arrived. I did not expect what was to come next or how that day would forever change my life.
I laid there for about 2 minutes still half asleep expecting to be cancelled. My mom was visiting town and so if I didn’t have to lose sleep, I wasn’t going to as there were plenty of other folks who would go.
“Second floor fully engulfed” crackled over the radio.
Holy shit. I flew out of bed, struggled to find the pair of jeans to throw on that I wore under my bunker pants, threw on slippers or flip flops or whatever was closest, ripped a tee shirt putting it on and ran out the door.
I ran downstairs, out the back, jumped in my car, through the lights and siren on, and then looked up.
The entire second floor of the house next door was in flames. These are what we live for and they don’t happen very often.
I somehow managed to make it to the station faster than I ever have before despite the 2 minute delay. I don’t remember those moments but I think I was doing about 85 through the center of the sleeping farming/college community.
Typically I would make the 3rd or 4th truck out. This time I made the first engine out.
I ran into the station, through on my gear, and jumped in the truck and began testing my air pack.
Being on the first engine, myself and my partner were the first ones in. If you’ve never been in a burning building, it’s kind of a unique experience. First, it’s like walking around your house with a blindfold on as you can’t see anything at all so becoming disoriented is the norm which is why you try to bring a hose with you so you can find your way back out.
Secondly it’s hotter than hell. Imagine the hottest day in the desert you can imagine. Then take it up a few notches. And you have about 40 pounds of equipment on you.
Thirdly, it’s loud and noisy and finally, you don’t really know if the next step you take is going to be on a floor that may or may not support your weight. So, it’s kind of a special feeling. LOL.
Dragging a fully charged hose, we ran up the stairs to the second floor with the familiar Darth Vader in and out breaths that come with breathing from a tank and at the top of the stairs, I felt something under my feet. I immediately knew what it was and dropped the hose and told my partner “I have a victim.” I grabbed the shoulders and he grabbed the knees and we went back down the stairs out to the front lawn.
The 21 year old guy was unconscious but breathing. By this time a few more trucks were arriving and the ambulance brought up the airway bag. Since I was the most highly trained medical person on the Fire Dept at that time, I pulled out the oxygen and began ventilating him when I had that “oh shit” moment that we never look forward to.
I was feeling resistance as I squeezed the bag that is connected to the oxygen tank and the mask that i was holding over his nose and mouth. My heart skipped a beat as I realized.
I was having a hard time getting air in.
In a burning building scenario, the hot air causes the trachea to swell and if the swelling (tracheal edema) is bad enough, it pinches off the airway. That’s a very bad thing. I was not going to let this kid die and have to see his parents on the front lawn the next day.
Tried to get a breathing tube in but the swelling was increasing and we were only a few minutes from the hospital so I handed him off to an EMT who begged me to go to the ER with him but the chief wanted me back with my partner in the building. Off he went to the ER and back thru the gates of hell I went.
It took hours to get that fire under control and we were on scene for nearly 20 hours. I recall having assistance from every surrounding town. The second floor of the building was completely destroyed and the building condemned until it was gutted and rebuilt. I remember not being able to see anything and having to navigate this enormous structure using just my hands to guide me and the hose I was pulling as a lifeline – both to find my way back out and to prevent a flashover scenario.
A flashover occurs when the temperature gets so high that everything spontaneously combusts. The hose can be used to force smoke and heat out a window by creating a stream of moving air that follows the water. Interestingly, until a hole is cut in the roof or fans are setup to release the heat and smoke, dumping too much water creates a lot of steam that can burn.
This fire was really a beast.
Will never forget that day.
Incidentally I later learned that young man went on to become a dentist.