The calls you just can't "shake"

It’s like scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Like hitting the home run with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, game 7 of the World Series. The play of all plays if you will. If only we were playing a game.

In our line of work, the consequences are much more severe. Here, in the real world; people die.  We never want to see these tragedies happen but if and when they do, we want to be there. We want to be the one to find the victim, “make the grab” and save a life. It’s what we train for and why we’re here.

Read my post The Illusion of Death HERE

Many of us will work our entire career and never have the opportunity.  These are the “lucky” ones. There are a lot more of us who will see more than our fair share of these types of incidents … house fires with entrapment, severe burns, fatal fires, arson / murder etc…. the kind of calls you never forget.

There’s a difference in the calls you never forget and the ones you can’t shake…. I have them both.

I hadn’t been on the job no time when I caught my first fire with Ladder 2 (I believe it was actually less than a month).  The Captain had knocked on the window and yelled back to tell us (me and Scott Mutter) that we were going “work”….a “10-71”. Once there, we got off the rig, grabbed our tools and headed to the house to make our searches.

We were met in the front yard by a man pleading for help. He was burned. BAD. His skin was hanging off his body. He was almost “zombie like” in his movement and sounds… arms outward, walking stiff legged. I almost didn’t realize what I was seeing.  I want to say “erie” but it was so much more than that … it was scary.

I had never seen a burnt person before much less one walking around pleading for help. We were already masked up and luckily, the Medics were right behind us to render aid. Because it was a “first” for me, this call is one that I will never forget but, in all honesty; it’s not one that I think about or remember often… I have those too.

I also remember my first “grab”. It was January 13, 1994 and I was driving the Battalion Chief.

We got there with smoke showing from a single story brick ranch and people screaming “he’s in the basement”. The Chief (Patton) took the basement door and I went in. I remember hearing him before seeing him. It wasn’t words I heard, it was his struggle for breath. A sound I hadn’t heard before.

Still, I found him quickly. At only about 110lbs, I grabbed him by the wrists and pulled with everything I had. I degloved him in an instant. I then got under his arms and around the chest to place him in a fireman’s drag. I made it back to the basement door where the Chief and others helped get him up the steps and to the yard for medical treatment. He lived for a few days before passing in the burn unit at UVA.

Not too long afterwards, I would move to Engine Company #5 and share the bucket with Scott Mutter ( one of the best firemen I know). At the time, #5 was arguably the busiest house in the City. We seen a ton of work. One year in particular, I believe we had 13 burn victims or fatalities. I remember one night, we were on our 2nd or 3rd fire of the shift. After locating a body in a 2 story, wood frame house fire, one of the guys from  Engine #7 asked us about it. He wanted to know how we were always the ones finding the victims or bodies. How were we able to do it so quickly. I think he even surmised that we must have been setting the fires ourselves. Without missing a beat, Scott simply told him “we’ve never found one out here in the front yard” (That statement would not hold true for very long). Having already changed our bottles, we headed back inside the house to finish the job while  leaving the inquisitive fireman in the yard to ponder our reply.

I made the  2nd “grab” of my career while assigned to #5, it may have even been the year that we had so many fatalities ….I’m not sure.  This one was much like the first in that I heard her first, only  time; I knew what the sound was and located her quickly back in the kitchen (1st floor).

I managed to drag her to a front room where other companies had took a window. I passed her out to the boys from Engine #3 and the awaiting Medics. I later learned that she was somehow related to one of our EMS supervisors and that she had lived. Although I’ve never seen or spoken to her since, I will never forget that night and the pride I felt in not only  “doing the job” but “doing it right”.

Again, there are so many things we see and do but will never forget, so many experiences…. good and bad

Read my post “Ramblings” and the subsequent “Update

Of course, like in the link above; even the “good ones” have a dark side. At the other end of the spectrum, try crawling through pitch black darkness reaching out for a sign of life and fearing what it may look like when you’re all of the sudden mask to face with it. The smell of burnt flesh. How severely burnt flesh contorts a body as it shrinks…. drawn lips and melted ears.

As bad as all that sounds, it gets even worse. Although we never forget calls like the ones above, others almost haunt you. Not only do you not forget them, you think about them often … even dream about them. Well, it’s more like a nightmare than a dream and I have those too.

I guess it’s kinda like PTSD . Mine had actually gone away for awhile until triggered by a recent event. Now don’t panic here folks … I’M FINE but the topic etc has been on my mind for a few weeks now (thus my lack in postings) and I figured what better therapy than sharing it with ya.

Scott and I had both made Captain. I was at Station #3 and he was back home at #5 (neighboring houses). We were both on the same shift. The early morning call came in as a house fire in the “projects” just between our two stations. It was May 5, 2002.

I got there first with smoke showing in the street but due to the weather, it was hanging low to the ground and spreading. We were going to have to look for this one.

Both crews scrambled for the source and finally we found the apartment. It was only a minute but seemed like an eternity. My firefighter had the line and made a knock on some fire on the 1st floor while I took Scott’s firefighter to the 2nd floor for a search ( Captain Mutter had established Command).

Because of the apartment layout, I did a left hand search and stuck to it. That meant I passed some doors thinking I’d get back to them on our way out. The fireman with me was fairly new and I didn’t want to separate us.

Our pattern took us to the master bedroom where we found a female victim. I don’t know the legalities involved so I wont give too much detail. I will say that very soon after finding her, there was no doubt that she was dead and that something much worse was going on.

By now, the acting Battalion had arrived and assumed command from Scott. I radioed that I had located a victim but was not bringing them out. Captain Mutter then made his way to us to see what we had found. In the room, I was focused on nothing other than the body and the circumstances in front of me. We were trying to “figure it out” …. what we were looking at…. what was going on.  I told  Scott and the boys that I was going to do a face to face with the Chief and explain why we were leaving the body. I didn’t know how to nor did I want to say it over the radio.

Scott realized that this was where our (my) search had ended and began making his own (and completing mine/ours). Soon after, he located 2 children, both without a pulse and neither breathing. They were down between the mattress and wall, inside the first room to the right at the top of the steps. It would have been the 1st room I searched had I have done a right hand pattern vs. the left.

They were babies …. just babies.  So small that Scott carried (ran) them both out to the ambulance at the same time. The  3-year-old Jaide and 2-year-old Marcasite, were  later pronounced dead due to  smoke inhalation.

As it turned out,  Askia Na’im Tahriq Shabazz, also known as Jermaine Donell Poindexter had set the fire in an attempt to cover up a murder. He set the fire  knowing the children were in there. I’d love 5 minutes alone with him!

He made the “15 Most Wanted” list and evaded police for months after. His father and brother, Anthony Duane Poindexter, 29, and Robin Leon Smith, 50, both pleaded guilty to one count of being an accessory to arson after the fact.

Read the story from HERE

That’s one of the calls that haunts me still today ( I have another ). I see their faces. They often wake me from my sleep. I see her body. The look on her face and what he did to her. I remember trying to figure out what I was looking at. I see the lifeless bodies of those two children in Scott’s arms. The look on his face as he rushed them to the ambulance. I still feel the hurt of knowing I failed those two children.

I often wonder “what if”. What if I had went right instead of left? What if I had finished my search instead of staying with the  adult body and what I was sure was a crime scene? What if we had gotten there quicker? What if Scott and Engine #5 had been 1st in? Would any of it have changed anything?? I’m not sure but at least they may have had a better chance… I’ll never know.

I haven’t had those dreams or woken up in a panic for a couple years now. That is until a few weeks ago anyway. I had a similar incident (not involving children) just a few weeks back and apparently it has rekindled all these old memories. Once again, I find myself unable to sleep or awake in the middle of the night checking to make sure the Buckaroo is not between his mattress and the wall.

I missed another one. I entered the structure as “search group 3”. The initial searches were negitive but the IC was almost sure someone was still inside the home.

I sent George left while I went right. Because of the previous story, I always go right now . The house was full of clutter and visibility was near zero. We entered the basement. In the middle of a back room, I moved off the wall to investigate something my tool encountered in the center of the room. Unbeknownst  to me, when I went back for the wall; I had moved forward enough to completely bypass the bathroom door. I missed it completely.

We searched our way to the 1st floor and found nothing. We were then reassigned while yet another crew (Ladder 5) began their search as Search Group 4. Ventilation was beginning to taking affect and allowed the Brothers from #5 found the body.

There are a TON of lessons here in my ramblings and again that’s why I’m sharing it with you. We’ve been put into a position where Engine Companies are doing Truck work while the Truck Company is doing Engine work. That’s not an excuse. We have to know each others job and we have to know it well. I don’t care what your assigned to or riding. You never know what task may be assigned to you or your company any more. Practice your searches because YOU NEVER KNOW. Then … PRACTICE em some more. It’s all about  technique …. even with my experience, we sometimes miss something.

Like Ladder 5 did with me, back your Brothers and Sisters up. Double check that they double checked. Expect the unexpected and do it right the first time.

Remember the jobs that will help you. Move past the ones that wont. We have so many outlets in today’s Fire Service to help us through these issues … USE THEM! Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), Department Chaplains, your Brother and Sister Firefighters, your wife (or husband), write a blog, keep a diary …. whatever or whoever …. utilize the resources available to you. Also remember that Rhett and I are always available. You can vent to us or we can point you in the right direction for the assistance you need.

That said, THANKS for letting me vent! I’m back on duty tomorrow and will try to get back on a regular posting schedule. Thanks as always for reading and following. Don’t forget to “Friend request” Share and  “Like” us on Face Book and Twitter. As soon as we hit 5,000 “likes” we’re going to do a HUGE give-a-way!

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So, until I get back, Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines