A vision of calm in the midst of hell

I’m on 4-day break and glad of it.

I’ve been the acting Battalion this past cycle and on our last day, I had the worst shift of my career.

I say that for several reasons and if you can stick with me for a while, I’ll try to explain why.

My last tour was this past Friday, June 29, 2012. That’s when the storm hit. I don’t know what “kind” of storm it was but I know it was bad.  The worst I’ve seen. I’ve never been in a tornado but I can only imagine that what we encountered is what they sound and feel like. It wasn’t a tornado (or at least I don’t think it was) but there were several things that struck me as odd.

First, there was NO WARNING. I received a text message a few minutes before it hit. The text was from an off duty Battalion saying “bad storm headed your way … just saying”.

The second odd thing was that there was no rain … just VERY high winds. We are used to severe thunder storms around here but this was different.

I had just gotten back to the station. The boys had saved me a plate from dinner and I was starting to warm it up. We began to hear the wind howling through the cracks of the doors and windows of the brand new station. It commanded our attention.

Some of the guys stepped out side. That was a mistake. They were immediately sand blasted by dust and debris. Visibility was less than 20 feet. Then, the tones hit.

We were out the door, responding towards our first of what would be hundreds of incidents. We were headed towards an apartment fire off Hollins Road. I was first out with the Engine and Ladder following. Within 2 blocks, I was in shock. ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE.

I’m not a veteran, but I felt as if I was in a war zone. It was almost like the movies. Power lines were arcing and falling in front of the Chiefs buggy as I swerved right, then left to dodge the falling trees and limbs. It was an obstacle of total chaos.

Dispatch called while I was en route…. she told me that they were over run with calls and weren’t sure what to do. I advised her to switch CAD over to “Crisis Mode” and to do the best they could, I’d call her back when possible. I then began to call Administrative Chiefs and update them on what was happening. Apparently, the storms hadn’t hit their communities yet because they didn’t seem too excited. A call from me alone should have been a “hint” that things were getting bad in the City.

When I cleared the first incident, dispatch advised that she had more incidents pending than we had apparatus to respond. She further advised that she had Medic Units (ambulances) responding to reports of house fires by them selves …. NO Engines or Ladders available!

Dispatch split the incidents into two tach channels, North side incidents on one, South side incidents on another. Our rigs were scattered. Engine #6 (from the South side) ended up in my Battalion and I couldn’t have been more happy. The Captain on E6 for C-shift is Scott Mutter. Scott and I came up together and I consider him the best firefighter we have on the job. I knew I could give him assignments and not worry … not that I couldn’t do that with other companies … it’s just that comfort factor that Scottie and I have with each other.

I ended up on a brush fire just across the tracks on the South Side. It was decent in size but under live, arcing wires. With me in the Chief’s buggy, there was nothing I could do. Scott and Engine 6 were close by, so I called him in and left the Police on scene until he arrived.

My next call sent me back into North West. Another report of a house fire. En route, I was once again dodging downed trees and power lines. Dispatch came back and advised multiple calls on this one and that it was fully involved.

My route in was blocked by trees and wires so Medic #5 got in first. They confirmed the reports but I didn’t need that … I could already see it from blocks away.

What I’ve failed to describe to this point is how many incidents and directions I had responded to up until this point. There was no rhyme or reason … we were going everywhere … from one incident to the next, trying to do our best. There was not an Engine or Ladder in the territory it should have been.

I had NO IDEA who or how many Engines I had coming. A Medic was on scene and then Engine #2 pulled up.

Engine #2 didn’t lay a line but went straight to work on one of the exposures (the Bravo one). The next Engine coming (Engine #8 from deep South West) was to be 2nd in and they caught the closest hydrant and got it into E2.

It was a long lay and the hydrant SUCKED. Engine #6 had heard everything happening and headed our way … it was a good thing.

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Streets were blocked, lines were arcing, trucks were stuck at dead ends due to debris. I had a single Engine on scene and no water. I was fixing to loose the entire block! Companies were arriving not knowing what order they were in … 1st in, 2nd in etc. Even though I gave directions of travel, most of them couldn’t be completed due to debris etc.

In my career, I have never felt out of control on an incident until this one!

Two Captains immediately came to my rescue. Captain R.T. “Skippy” Flora (E5) and Captain Robert Perdue  (E14) came to the command post and began to assist. Things were still “going to hell in a hand basket” but I wasn’t standing there alone at this point. Again, I’ll say that I’m not sure I can make you understand the “state” we were in …. I had never been inundated with this many incidents. I had never witnessed this much destruction in and entire shift, much less within an hour…. then I seen him.

Father Webb was on scene and our eyes met.

He had been doing a ride-a-long with Engine #6 and there he stood.

When our eyes met, he had a calm look on his face. He smiled at me and winked as if to say he was secure in knowing that I was in command. I don’t think he had a clue how lost I was at the time or how bad our situation was but just that simple nod and wink brought me back to reality.

Father Webb, wearing his white leather and gold shield couldn’t have been more reassuring and calming for me. He must have thought that everything would be fine because I was there, but I knew it would be because he was. That’s when things started to come together.

I had called for a second alarm (which was stupid) and things were falling into place. The building of origin was confirmed to have been evacuated with all occupants out safely. The two exposures were searched and also found to be “all clear”. Engine #2 had saved the exposure and now we were focused on the building of origin.

Multiple lines were laid and we even established a relay from 4 blocks away to assure a good water supply. Despite our efforts, the house was a total loss and seemed sure to collapse into the Bravo exposure. It was still burning and sending members inside was NOT an option. I called in an excavation crew to execute a “controlled collapse”  … to knock it down where WE wanted it to fall so we could continue to put it out. That was ANOTHER “first” in my career.

The title of this post relates to Father Webb being on scene. Again I’ll say that in my career, I have never seen this much destruction, had this many calls or had our resources spread so thin at one time. I was totally OVERWHELMED and our Chaplain provided that “vision of calm in the midst of HELL”.  It’s not a fair comparison but it took me back to 9/11. I can’t help but to think that our Brothers and Sisters of the FDNY felt that same “calm” as they saw Father Judge in the lobby of the towers. Again, I know it’s not the same but it’s also not the first time I’ve related Father Webb to Father Judge …

See a previous post by clicking HERE

So, After seeing Father Webb, things ran a lot smoother but I messed up ten ways to Sunday on this one. The good news is that nobody was injured and I learned several lessons.

At the time I marked a working fire and requested a 2nd alarm, I think we had somewhere around 140 calls pending. 140 calls waiting for a rig to clear so they could respond to another incident  ALONE!

I never should have committed all those resources to a single incident. Lucky for me, this was the biggest incident of the night ( maybe because I made it so).  There could have been other incidents where we were more needed. At one point, I had 7 Engines, 3 Ladders and 4 Medic units assigned.

I should have held only 2 Engines and a Ladder and concentrated on saving the exposures …. we WERE in crisis mode and I ended up knocking the house of origin down anyway.

Why was I thinking about this one incident when we had 140 some others pending?

I shouldn’t even have been responding to incidents … our Oficers are more than capable of running an incident and I could have been of more use in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) or dispatch.

That’s why I’ve never made Chief … I think like a fireman!

I was lucky again in that my decision didn’t affect other families. I got Companies cleared reasonably quick and we continued to run calls throughout the night. ALL MEMBERS of Roanoke Fire/EMS did an outstanding job that night…. NO LIVES WERE LOST !

I’ll post more on this event very soon … it’s one of those incidents that I just cant “shake”.  It came out of nowhere, without warning and put me in the middle of what seemed like a war zone. I was out of my element and didn’t make the decisions that I thought I was poised to make. I was not as “battle ready” as I thought.

The other part to this story is that it’s far from over. Virginia is in a “State of Emergency” and many remain without electricity. Temps are at or above 100 degrees with no relief in sight. There was millions of dollars of damages last Friday and I’ll bet that the insurance companies will call the events “an act of God” to avoid paying (which is sure to raise tempers along with the temperatures). The power companies are telling us that it may be weeks before electricity  is restored. No water, no ice, food spoiling etc. Stores are closed and prices will soar will they can reopen. I don’t know how much more we can take. We are about to be tested again …. I think I’m better prepared for the next round… I hope it wont be as bad as I think it will but either way, I still hope Father Webb (or your Chaplain) is close by.

Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines