Thursday, January 8, 2009

Another Fireman Story

Not sure why but this one's been popping up in my head lately.

I was working on Engine 28 that night. 28's is a fairly busy engine in an old "Victorian" neighborhood. Old mansions mostly broken up into small low income housing units. Also the nut-case capital of Milwaukee. A number of group homes and halfway houses are located in 28's "first-in" area. Also a neighborhood I used to call home.

In the middle of the night we got a run for "smell of gas." It's a common call that usually turns out to be a neighbor who left the stove on or something minor. Anything significant we call the gas company and ventilate the building. No big deal. We pull up to a three story brick apartment building on N 27th St. Looks like a heavily populated 12 unit building. We were first in and was joined shortly by Ladder 9. We walked in the front door and immediately realized it wasn't a "gas" smell it was GASOLINE! Very nasty stuff. A substance that every Firefighter respects. Extremely flammable. It doesn't have to touch a spark to ignite, It's fumes can reach many feet in search of an ignition source and when it finds one watch out. It all goes up at once. If your in the same area the only thing you can do is get away and if you're in the same room you are dead or you will be in a week.

We begin to search for the source. It seems to be coming from the basement and the only door we can find is blocked by a stack of cinder blocks. Coincidence? I don't think so. This is beginning to get scary. We had that stack moved in no time and entered the basement. It's dark, real dark. The only light is from our flashlights, a fire fighter's best friend, everyone had their's on. Old couches and furniture are stacked up against the walls and wreak of gasoline. It looks like someone loaded the basement with fuel and soaked it in gas. We walk into the next room and some one's light shines on a pile of rolled up carpeting. Immediately every one's lights reveal three or four large rolls of carpeting. On top of the rolls is a glass jar half full of a clear liquid with a long taper candle sticking out the top. The candle is lit. The contraption was a simple fuse intended to light the gasoline fumes in the jar and the room. Obviously someone was trying to torch this place and didn't care how many people they killed doing it. The room was full of highly flammable fumes and additional fuel for the fire to consume. The fact that it hadn't blown by now is amazing. It was was overdue to ignite and would any second.

SOP would have been to get the hell out of there as fast as possible, call for a full assignment and start laying lines. (Hoses) Of course by now the candle would have ignited the fumes, the basement would have exploded and getting those 50 or 60 people out of that burning building would have been a daunting task. I'm guessing we lose a bunch. That's if we make it out. If we don't, the truck (Ladder 9) calls for multiple assignments (Alot more firemen)and a rescue operation begins for us and 50 or 60 people.

It was one of those moments when time slows down. What took a second seemed to take minutes. We all looked at each other for what seemed like hours, in a heartbeat we all saw in each other's faces what our fate would most likely be. We seemed frozen in indecision, panicked beyond comprehension, as if we were looking at the devil's work and his goal was to kill us.

It only took a second to cover the ground between us and the candle. After what seemed to be an excruciatingly long period of time a firefighter confidantly covered the distance between us and the candle and wisely snuffed out the flame with his gloved thumb and fore-finger. If he'd blown that candle it may have been enough to introduce those rising fumes from the jar to the flame and we'd all be toast.

As with most runs I didn't give it alot of thought at the time but it keeps popping back into my head (along with others) and don't fully understand why. For an instant we all faced death together and an hour later it was if it never happened. I do believe it was one of those runs that in a another world could have gone much differently. Perhaps because of skill, pride, determination and some balls things came out as they did.

I use it as a lesson to myself. Sometimes things come out as they do for a reason. Not luck or destiny. Efficiency, skill and good foundations may be enough of an edge in this world to get ahead, tip the scale in your favor and perhaps change your life.
It wasn't luck that we didn't get fried in that basement. It was a well funded fire dept. that prides itself on 3 minute response times, well trained firefighters, fit firefighters (we had that cinder block "wall" down in no time) and a tradition of aggressive firefighting and pride. Another day, a different crew, another city, who knows how things could have turned out.

Especially in these tough economic times and this tough profession. Improve, practice and pay your dues. Sometimes it works.