They couldn’t see a thing.
The smoke was so thick Palmyra firefighters Cpt. Bobby Devlin and Jesse Wilson couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, let alone each other. It was intensely hot, and they still couldn’t see the fire. Their instincts were setting off alarms in their heads — something bad was going to happen and they needed to get out. Then Bobby’s air pack alarm sounded, alerting them he had at best five minutes of oxygen left. They dropped everything and made their way out. That’s when the fire flashed, the deadly heat chasing them down the two flights of stairs.
Bobby and Jesse were among the first on scene that Friday afternoon in Palmyra with engine driver Lt. Joe Bruening and rookie firefighter Ryan Dunning.
When the call came in at 2:39 p.m. for an apartment fire with possible people trapped and the caller suddenly disconnected, Jesse was working at Garlock and Bobby was shopping at CountryMax on East Main Street, just a few feet from the Palmyra Fire Department. They dropped everything to head to the fire hall, pull their gear on and head out.
What they didn’t know was that Newark firefighter Chris Santelli was already on scene. He had been home when he heard the call.
“I thought I’d lend a hand,” he said.
People had already gathered downtown on a warm and windy Friday afternoon, May 3, curious onlookers waiting for help to arrive. As he suited up, an officer tells Chris two people are trapped on the third floor. The smoke was heavy as he headed up the stairs, meeting a woman on the second landing who was going down the stairs as fast as she could. He continued up and saw the second woman running away from the stairs down the hall. Chris said he later learned she was trying to return to her apartment to get her cat.
“I took a calculated risk and went and got her (the woman),” Chris said. “That’s what we do.”
With no air pack and his life, as well as hers, on the line, he picked up the woman and carried her to the stairs. He sat her down at the top and together they descended the three flights to safety and fresh air.
The cat died.
As Bobby and Jesse approached the scene in Engine 21 within five minutes of the call, they saw the fire had vented itself, shooting flames 15 feet out a third floor window. Bobby had already called for more aid from Port Gibson and Macedon, then from Macedon Center and Williamson’s FAST Team.
Pulling a hose off the truck, Bobby and Jesse headed for the stairs just as Chris exited with the second victim. Bobby and Jesse pulled the hose up to the third floor, the smoke already filling the hallway from the ceiling down to chest level. Banging on doors, they called out for anyone who might still be inside. Bobby cleared the first apartment within 30 seconds as Jesse worked on pulling extra hose up the flights of stairs.
Page 2 of 3 - By now Chris rejoined them, air pack donned, and the trio approached the apartment where they knew the fire was burning. Dark black smoke seeped out around the door frame. They broke a hole in the door and reached in to unlock it. Chris retreated back down stairs to get a second hose as Bobby and Jesse entered the crowded apartment, their gear catching on things to either side of them and objects they couldn’t see toppling down on them. They were on their knees, crawling down a pathway, pulling a water-ladened 200-foot hose, trying to stay below the smoke and heat and keeping a constant dialogue going so they didn’t lose each other.
The heat is on
Bobby said it seemed as though they should’ve been able to see the fire, an orange glow, but there was nothing but blackness and intense heat that was growing hotter by the moment. They had no way of knowing the fire was burning behind a closed bedroom door not far away. With gear weighing some 50 pounds added to the extra weight of a 1 3/4-inch hose full of water and the extra effort to pull the hose along with them, they both expected to be hot, but this was too hot in light of the fact they couldn’t see any flames.
“We could feel the heat on our skin through our turnout gear,” Bobby said, which was alarming since their gear was designed to protect them from extreme heat.
A tragedy was evolving. Smoke not only carries heat, but it also carries any unburned gases as it seeps through every nook and cranny in the building’s frame, Bobby explained. As the heat intensifies, the gases become unstable, and when they ignite, it’s called a flashover. For a firefighter caught nearby, it’s deadly. It’s also how this fire was spreading, through the roof where there was nothing to stop it from igniting the wooden trusses and the insulation, down the walls and into the next building.
Bobby and Jesse knew something was terribly wrong and decided they needed to get out.
“All the conditions were right for something bad to happen,” Jesse said. “And then Bobby’s alarm went off.”
Each air pack holds about 30 minutes of oxygen under normal breathing conditions. Exertion had Bobby and Jesse breathing hard — the alarm was a final warning that kicked the duo in high gear. Jesse recalls stumbling out the door in their haste to leave. Then the flashover came in a burst of heat and flame.
“We could feel it following us down the stairs,” Jesse said. “This fire was fueling itself.”
Bobby and Jesse made it out safely. It had only been 13 minutes since they had first acknowledged the call for help.
Page 3 of 3 - ‘This isn’t TV’
Bobby stopped Chris and fellow firefighters Timmy Moon and Nick Eckert from rushing back inside, ordering them to fight the fire from the outside until more reinforcements showed up.
“This isn’t TV. No two fires are the same. There’s just no such thing as a routine fire,” Bobby said. “Fire doubles (in size) every 45 seconds as long as it has oxygen and a fuel source. This fire had both.”
For Bobby and Jesse, this was the worst fire they had ever seen. A 13-year fire department veteran, Bobby was in charge of the scene as top ranking officer, even after two chiefs arrived from other departments, both of whom offered aid but left the reins in Bobby’s hands. Volunteer arrival was sluggish, but it’s also understood that many of them work outside of the area and require time to get back home, if their employer allows them to leave as Jesse’s did. Had it been an evening fire, the volunteer response would’ve been faster but the outcome wouldn’t have changed.
“It doesn’t matter how many people you have or how much you train. If the conditions are right, the fire is going to run,” said Jesse, who suffered from heat exhaustion on his second foray into the building. “The conditions were right here.”
But Bobby said he can’t fault anyone for the hard work put in by the over 120 firefighters on scene giving their all to bring the fire under control. There are other things to consider.
“The most important thing is that everybody, citizens, firefighters, we all made it out safe,” he said.
“We all went home,” Jesse added.
“We gave it a 110 percent of everything we had,” Bobby said.