Thursday, December 29, 2005

A New Years Eve Fire…

Once again, this is a story from many years ago while I was active in the North Bay Fire Department.

I don’t really remember the year exactly, but I do remember it was New Years.

As was usual back then we were over at Larry and Jet’s house (Larry Flint, from my earlier stories) playing cards, having a few drinks and in general just relaxing and having one of those ‘good friends, good times’ evenings.

I remember the sound of the pager going off, and how it stopped time for a moment. How we all stopped, looked at one another, our wives knowing it would be another holiday evening without us, Larry and I knowing that this kind of call, with the Chief already on the radio calling for equipment was rarely good. Then an instant later Larry and I made for our vehicles, grabbing our gear on the way.

It was also usual back then that all of my gear was sitting next to his by the front door. You see, you wouldn’t want to have to run back home in case you needed it, so my gear traveled everywhere with me.

He and I slipped into our boots and bunkers, and hit the door carrying the rest of our gear. As I recall we jumped in his Datsun pickup and headed for the fire barn. It only took a couple of minutes from his house to the barn and shortly, as usual, we were standing on the apron waiting on a crew for the truck, which we’d already started and was warming up.

Several communications from the Chief (Gary Skinner) let us know the fire was around the corner from the fire house, he was getting the folks out of the house and needed us there, sooner, rather than later.

Once we had a crew, instead of turning left towards the fire, we turned right and headed 100 yards up the road to the ‘pond’. There, we dropped one end of a 5” line, or a portable hydrant as we sometimes called it, and proceeded to drop line all the way to the intersection.

As we pulled up on the scene, and Larry took control of the engine’s pump and hose system (as he was hands down the best pump operator we had back then) I busied myself with connections, hose lays and the like. As Gary and the first attack crew prepared to make entry into the house, I started towards the front porch steps intending to back them up.

As I was approaching the steps, I heard Larry yell something, I paused, looked back and he was pointing towards the eves of the roof… I looked up and could see a rhythmic ‘pulsing’ of smoke from the eves. Now, for those of you who don’t know, this is a very bad sign. It’s indicative of a structure deprived of oxygen that is beginning to try and suck air even from the higher parts of the building. It’s a potential disaster, a ‘flash-over’ waiting to happen.

As the crew opened the front door I could feel the air being drawn into the house, it was like a wind at my back. So could Gary, I heard him yell for everyone to “get down”, and I ducked up against the porch below the floor.

In an instant, there was a huge fireball blowing out over my head and reaching halfway to the street. I know, that in reality, it only lasted a second, maybe two at best, but it seemed, at that moment, to hang there forever.

When it retreated, my thoughts turned immediately to the team ‘on’ the porch and I began to climb up, as I did, Larry was right alongside me, and we both peeked over the rail and I heard Larry say “Everyone alright Chief?” . One by one they all sounded off that they were fine. Gary looked up at Larry and said “get me some water!”

With that the firefight was on. It was a long night, and we were fighting a losing battle. I tried to vent the roof, but it was so hot, and the structure so weakened, I couldn’t get the job done (well safely anyway).

In the end, we resulted to what’s sometimes referred to as a ‘surround and drown’, where all attention turns to containing the fire to the single structure and protecting the surrounding properties. We had lots of help from Cleveland, McConnellsville, and Gary even brought in a ‘ladder pipe’ from the Rome FD.

I still remember the sight of that truck, erecting the ladder, directing the nozzle, and the ‘deluge’ of water it dropped on that old house. The stream was so strong that in places it actually broke through the weakened roof, and finally we had the vent we’d wanted earlier. Once that happened, the steam conversion kicked in and within an hour or so, the fire was all but out and we’d begun to clean up.

The real story of the night though, came later, as we were sitting in the firehouse doing our usual ‘post-mortem’ on the fire and our efforts.

It seems Gary was the person who actually triggered the alarm. He was driving home from some get together he’d been to, and noticed what he thought initially was a chimney fire. After banging on the front door with no luck, he found the door was open and went inside.

The occupants of the home were all in a back part of the house, the kitchen I think he said, playing cards and having quite a bit of “New Years Cheer”. He said there were sparks flying out of the walls and ceilings, as well as from around the stovepipe as it entered the chimney.

However, the folks at the party were all having such a good time that they had neither noticed, nor did they seem to care. Gary said that it took him quite a while to convince them their house was on fire, and that initially they’d even wanted him to just leave! I remember he also said that what eventually finally convinced them of the problem was one of the other occupants coming down from the second floor and telling them the house was indeed on fire!

It seems that no one likes to be told they have to break up their New Year’s party!

I think this house fire stands out in my mind for several reasons. First, because it was a terrible fire and we lost the house, although we did prevent it from involving the adjacent homes. Second, that despite several opportunities for injury to our team(s), that no one was seriously injured fighting this fire. That like in many cases, the leadership we had in place then acted swiftly and decisively, and in doing so kept everyone safe. Third, because it was the last New Year’s we had with Larry and Jet. By the following year he’d become ill, and had left the area and Jet. I saw him only a couple of times after that before he died.

As always, recalling one of these stories makes me think of each of those firefighters, their efforts, and selflessness. That despite the hour, the weather, the personal sacrifice, they always showed up when the bell rang, that they always came with their ‘game on’; ready to do what had to be done.

I will be forever thankful I had the opportunity to know and work with people like this.

Technorati Tags: - - -
-IceRocket Tags: - - -

5 comments:

Firehawk said...

Bill,

I've been reading 'em, but the comments have sometimes been lacking lately. I liked your story about saving the bacon for that company that wouldn't ever pay you. You encounter some impossible-to-please people sometimes. I don't think they ever know how much stress and anger they cause, either.

Of course, this one is another of your great firefighting stories. They always give me such great images of the events in my head. I find myself wishing I could get involved in something like that. All the Fire Departments here are standard for-pay units. I guess I'll have to settle for "working at the library" stories.

Hope you're doing well, and have a great New Year.

jenbeauty said...

God Bless the men and women that do this job.

Happy New Year Bill!

Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...

Bill,

This story brought back some memories - - my husband was a volunteer firefighter for Harristown Fire Protection District, Harristown, Illinois. He "retired" two years ago after putting in 20 years of service.

I remember many, many times the pager going off and him having to run out on me at parties, family get-togethers, etc. But I understood his dedicatin - - his neighbors depended on him and the others to help and keep them safe.

Even though he has been off the department for 2 years now, it's still in his blood, and I know it always will be. I was always very proud of him and the dedication he showed during those years.

Hope your New Years Eve this year is a lot calmer than the one you wrote about!

Have a WONDERFUL New Year!

Liz

Comfort Addict said...

Bill,

Wonderful story, as always. Your firefighting stories fascinate me. I love hearing the details of what it takes to do the job and the comraderie of the company.

Have a great New Year.

Bill said...

Firehawk - First, the song was "The ballad of Hollis Brown", from the album "Stills Alone" the line(s):

Seven shots ring out
Like the ocean's pounding roar

There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm


I don't know why your piece made me think of that song, but it did.

As for the impossible folks, sometimes I think they know exactly how much trouble they cause and revel in their ability to do so... I just avoid them as often as I can!

All the departments here are paid as well, I miss the service, the friendships... I wish I could find something remotely similar to get involved with here.

Jen - I'll second that!!

Liz - I was actually worried I didn't remember that evening exactly as it happened... but, I got an email from my Ex yesterday that basically said that was how she remembered it as well.

While my friend Jack is retiring from 'work' this year, from what he's said he intends to continue with the fire service as long as he's able.

CA - I think they fascinate me too... that's why I write them up as I remember them. There was a wonderful sense of comraderie and trust. Something I've felt in the military and the fire service, but rarely in the 'civilian' sector (although it has happened a few times).

------------

Thank you all for the wonderful things you've said, not just here, but throughout the year... One thing though, these stories are never about 'me'... all of these people, and events have touched my life in important ways, and I'm just trying to share them. In most cases I've just been one of the players, rarely was *I* to story.

That you all stop by here and read what I write has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, although I don't know how I'd ever 'write' that up!!