LANCASTER CITY, PA – Without so much as an oxygen mask, goggles or helmet, veteran firefighter Terry Bracken rushed into a burning Lancaster city home Tuesday morning and carried out two unconscious children. The boys, who are 2 and 4, were trapped in a second-floor bedroom filled with smoke. A burning mattress blocked the doorway. Bracken, a 50-year-old lieutentant with the city fire department, could hardly even hear the cries of Devon Hen, 4, and Alvin Hen, 2, as he struggled to find his way through the burning brick duplex at 726 N. Franklin St. Smoke filled his lungs. Heat pressed against his skin.
“Visibility was zero. It was like trying to see with your eyes closed,” the firefighter said. “The fire was doubling every 30 seconds, so I knew time was running out to save the kids.”
As Bracken reached the top of the staircase, he could see the outlines of two men illuminated by the glow of the fire. They were attempting to extinguish the burning mattress with water from a garden hose.
The two men — Simuon Hen, the children’s father, and his neighbor, Ismael Pizzaro, 25 — also were trying to reach the children, but they couldn’t get past the flames.
A third child, Kevin Hen, 5, had fled the house before firefighters arrived.
Bracken told Hen and Pizzaro to get outside as he climbed over the burning mattress and entered the bedroom.
Hen collapsed on the front porch from smoke inhalation and was taken by ambulance to Lancaster General Hospital. Pizzaro escaped without injury.
“The children were limp,” Bracken said. “I scooped them up in my arms and headed out.”
Firefighter Frank Pritz, a 30-year veteran, met Bracken in the stairwell. They rushed toward daylight.
Bracken, a 28-year veteran, and Pritz put the boys down once they got outside and checked their pulses. Their heartbeats were faint, and the boys appeared to be unconscious.
Cathy Bernthiezel, a nurse at Diamatoni and Associates, a physician’s office less than a block from the burning house, performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on one of the children.
Bernthiezel and Dr. Gail Bodner directed Bracken to take the children into their 734 N. Franklin St. office for treatment.
Bodner and Dr. Howard Gerstein determined the children were unconscious from inhaling carbon monoxide.
The doctors placed an oxygen mask over the face of one of the children while Bracken stayed in an examination room with the other boy.
“I wish I had a camera because it was like a scene from a movie, to see this little child with a huge, hulking fireman standing over him,” Gerstein said. “He was not leaving that child.”
A short time later, medics arrived in an ambulance and took the boys to Lancaster General Hospital. Both were released Tuesday evening.
Fire marshals determined Devon had ignited the mattress while playing with a lighter. Damage is estimated at $35,000, said fire Capt. Sue Warchola.
Five-year-old Kevin left the bedroom after watching the mattress catch fire. He told his father about the fire.
Hen attempted to extinguish the flames with water from a bathroom sink as Kevin went next door for help.
Pizzaro called 911 shortly before 10 a.m. He also brought a portable fire extinguisher and hose to try and help Hen put out the blaze.
“Mr. Hen should’ve got his family out and called 911,” Warchola said. “The delay nearly cost his children their lives.”
When Hen pulled the mattress out the bedroom, the flames surged and spread into the hallway. The flaming mattress blocked the bedroom doorway.
Temperatures inside the home rose to more than 500 degrees. The heat melted a smoke alarm and window blinds.
At the same time as Hen struggled to put out the fire, firefighters Bracken, Pritz, Jeff Ressler, Marvin Kelley and Jamie Haines were three hours into their shift at Fire Station 3 on East King Street.
The platoon planned to attend a 10:30 a.m. swearing-in ceremony at City Hall for two new firefighters.
One of the new firefighters, Ryan Lehr, is engaged to Ressler’s daughter. The pair planned to be photographed with Ressler’s son, Kevin, who also is a city firefighter.
“We were getting ready to leave for the ceremony when the call came in,” Ressler said. “Had we been at City Hall when it happened, that would’ve delayed our response time and possibly been the difference between a rescue and body recovery.”
Bracken reflected Tuesday afternoon on his decision to go into the fire without putting on all his safety gear.
“It was a split-second decision,” Bracken said. “I knew I had nothing to worry about because these guys were right there to help me.”
By Brett Lovelace, Intelligencer Journal Staff