We Saved Six that Day (Or a Purpose-Driven Life)
I am writing this for myself and my fellow firefighters to relieve and express some of the emotions we have undergone in the last seven hours today. I am also praying for four little boys, ages one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, four, and seven, their mother and stepfather. This morning at 7:50, I arrived at Fire Station Three to serve my 24-hour tour of duty. Fifty minutes later, I found myself sitting in the back of our ambulance; my feet braced against the sidewall, looking into the vacant eyes of a seven-year-old boy. He was desperately struggling to get a breath every 15 seconds. As I looked around the inside of the van, Mike Hoag was holding a two-and-a-half-year-old boy; next to him, Mark Kroger had a one-and-a-half-year-old. Both children were laboring to breathe and fighting to live.
In the front seat, Kirk Bell had a four-year-old boy, and was telling Captain Helms, the driver, “I’m running out of O-2 (oxygen). Can anyone spare a breathing mask?” No one could.
There seemed to be kids all over the place. I knelt down by the seven-year-old boy; his clothes were steaming and blackened with soot.
Backtracking a little, Engine Three, with me driving, had arrived second at the fire scene about 8:25 a.m. Smoke and flames were breaking out the front windows. My job was to hook up to the hydrant and supply Engine One at the fire. My crew did this with much difficulty due to people who had stopped their cars in the intersection and left them blocking the hydrant. I could see down the block the worst fear a firefighter has: children being carried out of the building. I wanted to run to their aid, but knew my job was to stay by the pump.
I heard an urgent cry on the radio for another resuscitator. There was no one to get it so I did what an engineer should never do; I left the engine pumping on its own. A quick check of the rig and I ran to the scene with the breathing equipment. There seemed to be kids all over the place. I knelt down by the seven-year-old boy; his clothes were steaming and blackened with soot.
I asked Doug, “Is the boy breathing?”
Doug wasn’t sure, “Maybe every 30 seconds,” he responded.
As Doug and I worked on the boy, I glanced around to see six victims, two firefighters frantically working on each of the boys and three firefighters each on the adults. One firefighter was operating Engine One, and two were trying to find a fifth child who might still be inside. I looked up at the building and the fire was starting to engulf the front window again. There was no one to man the hose lines. Chief Cowell was calling for a second alarm with Rescue 32 ambulance. We needed more manpower. At this point, the building wasn’t important except that the fire could extend to the house next door.
Captain Helms made the decision that we could not wait any longer for the ambulance. We each grabbed a child and piled into the van.
As I climbed in with my child, I yelled at the chief, “No one is running my engine!”
He said it could not be helped and to go on to the hospital. It seemed like an eternity to arrive at Alameda Hospital though we broke all records getting there. On the way, it was crazy looking out the window at people driving their cars not even heeding the sirens. They didn’t seem to care. Yet inside the van, four kids were fighting for their lives. Alameda Hospital had been alerted of our plight. We moved the four boys into a common room. Throughout the next hour, we firefighter-emergency medical technicians assisted the medical staff.
There is no way I could explain that hour except to say, you had to have been there. In all the turmoil, there was a beautiful order. Two of the children started crying, which was a joy to hear. The other two were still vacant-eyed but breathing better on intubations and O2. By this time, a fifth victim, a man, had been brought in and, in his delirium, it took six of us to hold him down.
All of a sudden, I was not needed anymore. Hardly one-and-a-half hours had gone by, but it seemed like two days. As I stood at the foot of the four-year-old’s bed, the thought hit me, how frail the human being is. “Oh, God,” I said under my breath. I made my way to the privacy of the bathroom where tears welled up and emotions overwhelmed me. On that gurney I had seen my children and your children. I thought, this could have been avoided by the purchase of a $10 smoke detector. When will the people learn? Don’t wait for your landlord to buy one; save yourself!
Back to the fire — it was under control — time to pick up the hose. Ed Smith had come in off duty, on his own, to run my rig. That’s how firemen are. Time to clean up and to get ready for the next fire. It will come. I have been a firefighter for 15 years. I’ve lived this scene many times before, not always with the intensity of today, but sometimes worse. It is now 4:15 p.m. I have escaped the activity of the dayroom to my bunk. The warm afternoon sun is calming, and the room is quiet as I write. Good news has just arrived; all four boys are in guarded but stable condition and have been transferred to Children’s Hospital. When you see the fire on the news tonight, they will give it about 30 seconds; and on to the price of corn in Nebraska, Middle East war, or the local sports scores, but I know that six people are alive today because of men of uncommon valor and love for this city and its residents.
I love this job!
The Catapult (Or How to Clean the Undercarriage the Hard Way)
Station One, Early Seventies, Early Morning
Engine One, Captain Steckler is the officer, with Ed driving and me on the tailboard. Truck One, Lieutenant Ray Hutton, with Otis driving and Moe on the back, or should I say side. The real Truck One was out of service and in its place, our old, antiquated reserve utility truck. It was a 1953 White cabover, no aerial ladder, with a gutless, underpowered gasoline flathead with six cylinders, manual choke, and a terrible five-speed transmission. There were no jump seats, so the firefighter had to stand on the side holding onto the bar. You could see everything ahead of you, but with no protection. The highest thing on the rig tonight was Moe’s head. If Otis slammed on the brakes you could watch Moe fly over the cab, land on the street in front of the rig with just enough time to be run over. If the driver was good, and there was enough clearance, and if you stayed flat, you might be able to check the undercarriage as it rolled over you. It could be a good vantage point to see if the driver had cleaned the frame that day.
Editor’s note: After posting this story today, we heard from Dave. He sent the above photos of Alameda Fire Department’s 1953 White cabover truck. It looks a little different than the trailer truck we found to illustrate the story!
What are My Legs Doing in My Sweatshirt? (Or You Had to Have Been There to Believe it)
Station One, Mid 1980s, 2:30 a.m.
‘A Shift’ was on duty, Bill Simon dispatching. We firefighters would stand three-hour watches at the switchboard from noon through 9 p.m. and then, in rotation, sleep in the watch room through the night… we hoped. Bill would take over if a call came in; otherwise, he slept in the dorm with the rest of us. At midnight, all were asleep when we heard the tone alert and the lights drop (turn on).
“We have the report of a house fire on Bay Farm Island, Engine Five from Station Four, Fountain and Jackson with Truck One.”
In these years, we all had to bunk (get dressed) whether dispatched or not. We reported to the dispatch room until the all-clear. If you weren’t responding, you would let the crew that was responding bunk first, and you would take your time. Knowing Truck One was going to the fire, I looked across the dorm and noticed that Otis was sitting on the side of the bed with a puzzled look on his face. He was holding his sweatshirt up and studying it. Usually, he was first out the door.
I yelled, “Otis! The call’s for you! Otis!”
He didn’t respond. All the rest of the crew was out of the dorm, and there he sat.
He then started to put his foot into his sweatshirt and pull. The guy was still asleep!
I got to him as he was coming to. Now he looked in disbelief at what he was doing, wondering how the sweatshirt got on his legs. I pulled it off, he bunked, and I directed him toward the door and down the stairs, not sure that he was awake yet. He moved on his own toward the truck, and I entered the dispatch room.
Now it really got good. Bill was at the console but still half asleep himself. He had already gotten a reply from Lt. Hutton that Truck One was responding. He assumed that the truck was out the door. I looked through the apparatus room window and saw that Moe was on the side, Ray was in the cab, and Otis was still staggering toward the rig. Bill had been doing this job so long that he did everything by braille.
The truck was just starting to move when, to my amazement, Bill, thinking by now that the truck, as usual, should be on the street, reached up and, without looking, hit the button to close the door. The door started to come down as the cab was passing under; I doubt that Otis or Ray was even aware, but Moe was.
I screamed, “Bill!”
Moe has now ducked below his knuckles, which were the highest thing on the truck. He was looking up in disbelief. The door continued, the truck continued, and Moe continued, but I had stopped breathing. I can see, in my mind’s eye, the door scattered all over the ground with Chief Magby in his guttural voice asking, “W-h-y?”
It’s hard to believe as I stood there frozen, but the door cleared by about six inches and Otis drove merrily down the street, unaware that anything was different. Moe thought to himself, I need to get back and change my shorts. We trained and we trained but it only takes one thing out of order to muck up the situation.
David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.