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Firefighters recount saving civilian trapped in burning apartment building

Fire captain recalls fire conditions on fourth floor during initial fire attack

Posted: November 12, 2012 - 1:03am
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Juneau Police Officer Ben Beck was one of three police officers who first arrived on scene at the Gastineau Apartments Monday evening. They ran into the smoky building to help alert residents to the fire danger and helped them evacuate minutes before fire personnel arrived on scene. One of the officers suffered elevated carbon monoxide levels and had to be treated at the hospital.  Courtesy Photo from the Juneau Police Department
Courtesy Photo from the Juneau Police Department
Juneau Police Officer Ben Beck was one of three police officers who first arrived on scene at the Gastineau Apartments Monday evening. They ran into the smoky building to help alert residents to the fire danger and helped them evacuate minutes before fire personnel arrived on scene. One of the officers suffered elevated carbon monoxide levels and had to be treated at the hospital.

Firefighters rescued an elderly civilian trapped in his third-story apartment during the Gastineau Apartments fire in downtown Juneau last Monday.

When Capital City Fire/Rescue firefighters Brent Clancy, Paul Kelly and Travis Larsen first arrived on scene, there were reports that a couple was trapped on the third-story stairwell of the South Franklin Building. The fire chief, already on scene, directed the three firefighters to find them.

The trio grabbed their forcible entry tools and searched all the stairwells but didn’t find anyone. At that point, the team turned into a search and rescue group for the third floor and began breaking in all the doors to ensure everyone was evacuated.

The firefighters had cleared almost all the apartments when they got to second to last apartment on the third floor. Clancy broke down the door and called out “Is anybody in here?” No one responded.

Clancy walked into the apartment anyway, through the living room and toward the back bedroom. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a person in the bathroom. It was an elderly man with a home oxygen tank.

“I think he was in just as much shock as I was,” Clancy, 38, said in a phone interview Friday, noting that smoke was heavy in the hallway at that point, but not yet heavy in the apartments. “It’s not everyday you find a fireman busting in your door.”

Clancy told him that the building was on fire and he had to evacuate. Since the hallways were too smoky at that point, the team realized they would have to escort the man down to safety from his window.

The fire team called for an extension ladder over the radio. They also saw two Juneau Police Department officers, Officers Nick Garza and Ben Beck, outside the window, and asked them to help find a ladder.

Noah Jenkins, a volunteer firefighter, heard the call over the radio and helped bring the ladder over to the window with the two officers.

Firefighter Paul Kelly ran outside and climbed up the ladder as an officer held the ladder from the bottom for support.

Still inside the room, Clancy and Larsen helped the man onto the ladder, and then Kelly escorted him down the ladder by walking down in front of him.

Once the man was safely on the ground — on a stairwell next to the building — he began to experience shortness of breath, and he could no longer walk. Officer Beck ran to get the man a medical oxygen kit and placed it on him to help the man breathe.

“We didn’t have a stretcher or anything, so Paul Kelly just kind of threw the guy over his shoulders and walked down the remainder of the stairs on the side of the building there to a waiting ambulance,” Clancy said.

The firefighters didn’t know the man’s condition after that, but a hospital spokesman said earlier that the five people who were brought to the Emergency Room during the nine-hour long fire were all treated and released.

 

Injuries

No life-threatening injuries or casualties were reported in the fire, which engulfed the building’s top fourth floor. All the residents were evacuated.

After the rescue, Clancy sustained a concussion during another fire operation later in the evening. A charged hose line got knocked loose out a fireman’s hold, and the stream of water — which pumps about 1,000 gallons of water a minute — pummelled Clancy in the side of his face.

Clancy fell to the ground, but came to in about 10 to 15 seconds.

“I was seeing stars,” he said in an interview.

Blood was flowing from his ear where the water hit him, as well as from his mouth because he bit his tongue and his tooth went through his lip. He was taken to the hospital, where doctors were concerned he had a perforated ear drum. It ended up only being a little perforated, he said, and he was able to return to work on Sunday.

After being released from the ER, Clancy tried to go back to the fire to help out again, but was ordered home.

 

Evacuations, 911 call

Also helping in the primary evacuations of the building were three downtown police officers who first arrived on scene before the fire engines and trucks — Garza, Beck and Cody Held. The three officers pounded on doors in the apartments to alert residents to the danger. One of the officers suffered elevated carbon monoxide levels and required oxygen treatment at the hospital, according to police spokesman, Lt. David Campbell.

Another person who helped evacuate the building was the building manager, Gregory Pearce, 56, who was still hoarse from yelling during a phone interview Saturday. Pearce located the room where fire was coming from — he said Room 405 — where a female tenant was screaming in horror. Pearce directed the woman out of the building, and they pounded on doors to alert her neighbors. Pearce also called 911 and reported the fire.

Other fire crews conducted search and rescues in the building to ensure all the residents were out at the same time that Clancy, Kelly and Larsen were searching the third floor. Also at the same time, a team was on the fourth floor, trying to fight the fire.

 

Initial fire attack

The first fire company to arrive on scene from the downtown fire station — a minute and a half after the call came over the radio for a possible structure fire — was a team led by Captain Lynn Ridle, 55, who has been a firefighter for 27 years. Ridle’s company consisted of two firefighters on a fire engine and four firefighters on a fire truck with a ladder.

They were tasked with entering the building to fight the fire on the fourth floor. They began laying about 400 feet of 2 1/2 inch diameter hose lines from the parked apparatus up the stairwell to the fourth floor. Ridle gave the order to charge the line, or pump it with water, after opening the stairwell door to the fourth floor.

“When we opened the door, smoke was to the floor,” Ridle said in an interview at the downtown station Friday. “Heavy, dark smoke was to the floor, and burning debris and embers falling out of the ceiling into the hallway.”

“Very hot,” Ridle added. “Very, very hot.”

Despite zero visibility and high heat conditions, the firefighters blasted the ceiling and hallway with water while at the same time searching for residents who might have been overcome by smoke on their way to the exit.

They tried to inch their way toward the room where the fire originated, but were unable to make it all the way there due to the heat conditions.

“We made it as far as we could before the temperature — it just became untenable, an untenable environment” he said. “There would not have been any survivors had we got them at that point. It was just too hot.”

Ridle’s crew retreated back into the safety of the stairwell after about 10 to 15 minutes in the building. Their air tanks, which are designed to last for about 45 minutes but expends quicker with more physical exertion, were way less than half full.

“I was the last guy out,” Ridle said. “I count my people — I knew I went in with four — so I count them as they go by me. Actually have to touch them because I can’t see them. I counted them on their way out, I had all my people, I shut the door, and that was that.”

 

All hands on deck

After the initial fire attack crew and the search and rescue teams were reported out of the building, firefighters began blasting water from the “master streams” onto the building.

If water from the master streams went into the building before crews and people were out, it would have instantly killed them, said CCFR Training Officer Nathan Young in an interview Friday.

“Nothing gets opened up on the outside of the building until all the crews are accounted for and physically pulled out of the building,” Young said.

About two to two and a half million gallons of water were put on the building over nine hours.

Almost every firefighter in Juneau responded to the call at the Gastineau Apartments — which is 33 career firefighters and 65 volunteers. Retired firefighters joined in to help with backstaffing to handle medical calls at the station. Members of the Sitka Fire Department flew in to Juneau on a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to assist with operations for the next day.

“This is absolutely all hands at once, pretty much a situation that we’ve never really encountered in recent history,” Young said. “We had all resources deployed.”

Young said it was an incredible effort.

“The teams, they were just incredible,” Young said. “Everybody who went inside that building went way above and beyond to try and get the job done.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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