The Fireman

This is a true story that was shared with me as part of my Sonder Stories series.

The men of Lyndon Fire Department in Louisville, Kentucky were cooking chili for another station in the city. It was tradition; different stations would take turns cooking their special chili recipes on Sundays and drive the pot over to the fire station across town. The firemen would bond together over different spices and meats on the days that are typically slow in the fire community.

Stephen DunLany was a thirty-one year old firefighter at the station in 2006 when a structure fire was called in during chili day. The men were delivering the chili to their neighboring station when they got the alarm that there was a structure fire, which means a commercial building was up in flames. This is what they trained for, so everyone was calm, but the anticipation and excitement was pervasive with every call.

He knew it wasn’t going to be anything crazy. The station had false alarms all of the time. Sure enough, this structure fire was canceled and the men headed back to the station. Then came another call. The fire engine was on the highway heading towards this second call when Stephen noticed a large column of black smoke in the distance. This wasn’t a false alarm.

The engine pulled up to a tri-level condominium with white smoke pouring from the doors and windows. Stephen’s company Captain quickly joined the Captain of the neighboring company to speak to the owners of the condo who were watching their building go up in flames. The two fire Captains were able to determine that they were dealing with a basement fire and decided to split their companies up to fight the fire.

The neighbor station firefighters were sent to the basement to fight the fire directly at its source. Stephen’s company was sent to investigate the second floor to open windows and to see if the fire had spread. This kind of fire spread is called an ‘extension’ because it travels from the original fire source through the walls, quickly engulfing the building. The first floor was clear and had no indications of a deteriorating situation.

Stephen’s Sergeant was the first man up the stairs, with the Captain and Stephen immediately following him. The men made it to the second landing at the top of the stairs before they had to crouch down from the darkening smoke. They began to crawl around upstairs, looking for windows to open for ventilation. When Stephen reached the landing, he began to feel the heat prickling his skin through his firefighter suit, which is built to withstand up to 500 degrees fahrenheit for only fifteen minutes. With his halligan tool in his left hand, Stephen tapped his Captain’s arm through the heat and communicated with hand signals that he could feel the heat, which was an indicator of unsafe conditions. The Captain signaled that he understood and that they needed to make sure everyone was present before they evacuated.

Meanwhile, the basement crew had made it two steps into the basement before they had to retreat from the heat. As they began to crawl backwards out of the basement, the captain began to feel the floorboards of the first floor start to give way beneath his legs. He radioed to the command that the structure needed to be evacuated immediately.

Unknowingly, the upstairs crew gathered together to evacuate based on their own concerns. Stephen’s ears began to burn, melting to the sides of the Nomex hood that covered his head underneath his helmet.

“Hey Captain, my ears are burning.”

“Alright, let’s go.”

What Stephen and the firemen upstairs didn’t know was that a third crew had been sent to chop holes in the roof with their axes to provide more ventilation for the fire and to cool the internal temperatures of the building. As the basement firemen left out of the front door, the staircase to the basement collapsed in flames and the stairs to the second floor quickly followed. The center of the condo, with the advent of the rooftop ventilation and the opened windows by Stephen’s team, turned into a giant incendiary flue with roaring flames reaching the second floor. The billowing flames and heat pushed the men backwards. Stephen was the closest to the stairs when the collapse occurred; his right arm received enough heat to begin to melt his skin into his turnout gear.

The smoke made it impossible to see even a few inches in front of his face. He had lost the Captain and Sergeant in the collapse. The heat was overbearing, even as he crawled on his hands and knees searching for an exit, because the heat was coming from below as well as from above. He crawled into a room, feeling for anything that would indicate where he was in the condo. His heavily gloved fingertips felt grout lines…the bathroom. He backed out of the room, knowing from earlier that there wasn’t a window.

Stephen began to panic. He stopped and sat back on his knees, thinking to himself, “Alright, I know what I need to do. I just need to stay calm and figure this out.” Putting his hands back to the ground, he continued to look for a way out.

The heat during the staircase collapse had pushed the other two men into a bedroom near the top of the stairs. Inside of the bedroom, the firemen couldn’t see. They began pressing their hands, heads, and shoulders into the walls while they crawled along the floor looking for a way out of the scorching heat. Stephen glanced up through the smoke to barely see a square outline of dim light. It reminded him of what it looked like being in a dark closet as a kid with just a sliver of light shining through the cracks of the door.

Stephen reached up and pulled at the curtains, forcing them aside to show the open window that drew so much smoke. Turning away from the window, away from safety, Stephen went to find his Captain. He crawled over the bed and swatted at his Captain to get his attention.

Hey, we’ve got a window!”

Stephen crawled back over the bed to the window, his Captain close behind. Then he stood up, glanced out of the window and looked down to the ground two stories below him.

“This is going to hurt.”

That thought had barely completed when Stephen crashed into the ground. He had thrown himself headfirst out of the window, somersaulting before landing on his head and neck in full turnout gear. It took a little over one second for Stephen to fall from the second story window before impacting at approximately 26 miles an hour onto the grass below. It took a few seconds for the next wave of panic to set in before Stephen could move. Struggling to breathe with a paralyzed diaphragm, Stephen staggered to his feet to get out of the way of his Captain’s landing. The indentation of his tank and body were etched into the grass.

Bystanders ran to Stephen, trying to pull his equipment off of him. Stephen screamed, “I’m hot! Don’t touch me!” and shoved them back again and again. He knew something was wrong with his arm and didn’t want anyone to touch his jacket. What if they pulled off his skin?

An incident command officer from another fire station ran up to Stephen as Stephen tried to lie down on the ground from pain and exhaustion.

“Is anyone else left in there?”

Stephen didn’t see his Captain. “I think my Captain is still in there.” The incident officer was looking for the firemen whose accountability tags are pulled from the engine to indicate the individual was fighting the fire. These tags are how the Battalion Commander track and dictate the crews’ job and specific location as they maneuver to fight a fire. 

Just then the Captain stuck his head out of the window. Immediately a ladder was leaned against the window ledge by the firemen on the ground and the Captain evacuated the building safely, sliding down the ladder.

“What about the Sergeant? Where is your Sergeant?”

Stephen realized his Sergeant hadn’t gone out the window before him like he thought. The firemen circled the building, hoping the Sergeant had found another window.

The Sergeant had thrown himself out of a window in the back of the house…and had landed on an air conditioning unit. The indent of his air tank was clearly outlined in the metal of the AC. The Sergeant got up and walked away.

Stephen, the Sergeant, and the Captain were placed into ambulances and immediately sent to the nearest hospital. Police shut down the roads between the still-blazing fire and the hospital to get the men there as quickly as possible. Sirens on, the police cars escorted the ambulances all the way.

Stephen’s paramedic in the ambulance was a friend who had been working over twenty years. He cut off Stephen’s shirt and held cold towels to Stephen’s right arm and shoulder to reduce the internal burning that was continuing inside of his body. There were no blisters yet, just a glowing outline of red. Stephen tried to close his eyes…he was so tired. The paramedic kept him awake by talking and joking with him. He held off on giving morphine to Stephen, knowing that with the fall, Stephen was possibly concussed and falling asleep would cause more damage. The pain was keeping Stephen alive. He hooked up an IV to help rehydrate Stephen quickly.

Stephen knew he was hurt; he could feel the burning, but it wasn’t terrible. Stephen realized he was going into shock as they reached the hospital. 

Doctor Price joked with the nurse as Stephen came in. “Give him the same dose of morphine you would give a horse.”

X-rays were taken to determine the level of damage Stephen suffered during his fall from the second story window. No bones were broken but he had multiple bruised bones and damaged vertebrae in his back.

A calling tree was set up in the fire department to notify friends and family of what had taken place at the fire that day. Within a few hours, Stephen’s mom and dad, who lived far away, had been notified. “We are calling to inform you that your son was involved in an accident.” He was able to speak to them once he was stabilized. His aunt and uncle lived close by and visited immediately.

Stephen spent a month in the hospital, his arm elevated and immobile to protect the third degree burns.His body had absorbed the heat, causing permanent nerve ending damage. He gained almost 60 pounds over the next year as he navigated his back and burn injuries.

It took about four minutes for the fire crew to respond to the fire alarm. Less than eight minutes had transpired from the time the engine had arrived at the condo to when the firemen had called “May Day” and threw themselves out of the window. It was later discovered that the fire had started from the back of the house. The pipes that held the electrical wires from the street had water dripping on them for years, eventually rusting away. The water caused an electrical arc and immediately caught fire. The back of the home had gone up in flames. It was later revealed that the fire had burned a four foot hole in the closet of one of the upstairs bedrooms as Stephen had been trying to escape. He had lost his halligan tool somewhere upstairs during the chaos.

Studies have been conducted over the last few years to determine fire behavior in instances such as Stephen’s fire that day in 2006. Researchers will change air flow, oxygen levels, materials, ventilation types and ventilation locations to see how a fire will react and how firefighters can best fight fires and save lives and buildings. These studies have revealed that practices that have been taught, such as opening windows to let out smoke and cool the building for the firefighters to work is actually creating flow paths for fires to spread more quickly. That, coupled with the composite materials and glue that structures are built with in the mid to late 20th century has lessened the amount of time a fire crew has before a structure becomes deadly. Synthetic furniture creates more smoke and raises the temperature of a fire more rapidly as well.

Stephen is still a firefighter living in Kentucky. He advocates for the healthy lifestyle of fellow firefighters by traveling throughout America with 555 Fitness during his off-time. 555 Fitness is a non-profit determined to help reduce the amount of cardiac arrests of firefighters by encouraging cardiovascular health and wellness. Sudden cardiac arrest is one of the leading killers of current and retired firefighters. 

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