Firefighter Eric Whitehead credits his fellow Buffalo (New York) firefighters for saving his life when they pulled him from the attic of a burning house in January.
“I just knew my brothers were there,” Whitehead told The Buffalo News in a February phone interview from the burn unit at Erie County Medical Center, where he recounted how they picked up his 5-foot-11 inch frame and carried him down two-and-a-half flights to safety.
But in a lawsuit filed Aug. 7 against the Buffalo Fire Department, Whitehead says he was put in danger – blinded by smoke and steam – after a fellow Engine 21 firefighter evacuated the house without him. Isolated and disoriented in the attic, Whitehead was unable to press the “man down” button on his radio. So he removed his gloves in a final attempt to operate his radio, resulting in severe burns to both hands, according to a report from the state Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau.
Whitehead sued the fire department for “negligence, carelessness and recklessness” and violating its procedures and practices when fighting the fire at 82 Butler Ave.
The results of the state bureau’s investigation of the Jan. 10 fire will likely be a factor in his civil case. The bureau cited the fire department for three violations, calling two of them “serious” and the other “non-serious”:
• The department did not identify or consider the atmosphere of the whole house to be “immediately dangerous to life and health” before deducing the fire’s location. Firefighters entered the house with appropriate personal protective equipment, but they didn’t use their self-contained breathing apparatus until they climbed to the second story and determined the source of the fire was in the attic.
• Inside the house, at least two firefighters entered atmosphere that was “dangerous to life and health” and did not remain in visual or voice contact with one another at all times. Firefighter accountability was compromised during the interior firefighting operations.
• Several supplementary records for a firefighter injury or illness between 2016 and 2018 did not have complete descriptions, considered a non-serious violation.
A city spokesman declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Whitehead spent six weeks in the burn unit. He underwent several surgeries on his hands, and two more are scheduled, one for each hand, said lawyer Charles Desmond II, who is representing Whitehead in the civil case.
Whitehead’s firefighting career is in jeopardy.
“It probably will be over,” Desmond said.
His hands “keep curling up” because of the skin and tissue loss,” Desmond said.
Whitehead is not happy about what happened, but he has no hard feelings toward the firefighter he was separated from, his lawyer said.
Inside the house
On the night of Jan. 10, Whitehead was the acting officer in charge for Engine 21 when the call came in at 8:30 p.m.
The initial call indicated that there were people in the house and that the fire was visible from the street, according to the 911 recordings turned over to a Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau inspector.
A timeline in the bureau’s report details what firefighters and their superiors did in the 15 minutes from when Engine 21 arrived on the scene to the “mayday” call for Whitehead.
8:31: In addition to Engine 21, two other engine companies, three ladder trucks and Rescue 1 are dispatched to 82 Butler Ave. with battalion and division chiefs and training, safety and hazmat officers.
8:33: Engine 21 reports being on the scene, seeing smoke and “laying down line.”
8:34: Ladder 6 reports smoke showing from the second floor and that everyone has been evacuated from the house.
8:36: Engine 21 calls for the hose line to be charged.
8:37: Rescue 1 reports to the battalion chief that the fire is in the second floor ceiling with heavy fire in the attic.
8:39: Rescue 1 calls for a second line to combat the fire in the attic.
8:40: Engine 33 brings second line up the rear stairwell.
8:43: Engine 37 is ordered to take third line through front door to the second floor.
8:44: Call is made to battalion chief to have attic window vented.
8:45: Conditions are still very smoky in attic; third line called to be charged.
8:47: Three lines are in and the smoke is “lightening.”
8:48: A “mayday” call comes over the radio for a downed firefighter. Whitehead is located.
8:51: Firefighters move Whitehead to the second floor, request oxygen and medical support.
8:54: The downed firefighter is removed from building down the front stairs.
In his News interview in February, Whitehead said he didn’t see any smoke on the second floor, but “we could see it coming from the attic.”
As he approached the fire, Whitehead was working near another firefighter, the “attack man,” helping with the hose line, according to his lawsuit.
Buffalo’s fire engine companies work in four-person crews: driver, hook-up, officer and attack. The firefighters in the attack and officer assignments hold the primary roles in battling an interior structure fire. The attack position handles the nozzle of the hose line and the officer, in close proximity, provides assistance.
It was not possible to determine the location of the fire from outside the two-story, two-family home with shared stairwells in the front and back. The attic was not designated for occupancy.
Afterward, firefighters unanimously said in interviews and depositions that they faced extreme heat in the attic during the initial stages of the firefighting operation, according to the state report.
One of the Engine 21 firefighters began to run low on air, according to the state report.
“The attack member was forced to exit the attic in an effort of self-preservation. The attack member became slightly disoriented during his evacuation but was able to relocate the attic stairs and exit the structure.”
Whitehead “remained in the attic as the sole member of the Engine 21 team,” the report said.
Engine 33 firefighters were behind him on the stairwell.
Around the time the Engine 21 attack member left the house, Whitehead was struck by an unknown object, either a fellow firefighter or debris, and he lost contact with the hose line under his control and became disoriented.
The Engine 33 attack member also left the attic due to low air supply and extreme heat, the report said.
“Though the officer of Engine 33, members of Rescue 1 and members of Ladder 6 were inside the structure, the Engine 21 officer became isolated and was unable to exit the attic,” according to the state report.
Whitehead was forced to take a prone position and tried to call for rescue using the “man down” button on his radio. But he couldn’t manipulate the button, according to the report. So he removed his gloves, leading to the burns on his hands.
Buffalo firefighters have personal alert safety systems (PASS alarms) in their self-contained breathing apparatus, and the alarm emits a loud audible beacon when the unit remains still for a period of time. The alarm can also be activated manually.
Whitehead’s PASS alarm was not activated, “as efforts of self-preservation would have resulted in enough movement to prevent the automatic engagement of the alarm,” according to the report.
Running low on air, Whitehead awaited rescue as he heard other firefighters on the roof and closing in on him in the attic. He was able to make contact with another firefighter, “possibly with his leg while calling for help, and a “mayday” was called over the radio” by a member of Rescue 1, the report said.
Whitehead was taken to the hospital for severe burns.
The Engine 21 firefighter serving in the attack role was also taken to ECMC and admitted for first- and second-degree burns on the bulk of his upper torso, the state report said.
Four other firefighters were sent to the hospital, including the attack and officer members of Engine 33 – the company operating the second line in the attic during the most extreme conditions of the fire – and were treated and released.
‘I knew I was hurt bad’
Whitehead’s lawsuit contains some of the same language found in the state report.
His court papers, for example, say he remained in the attic “as the sole member of the Engine 21 team” when the other firefighter evacuated the house.
In the attic, he was “struck by an unknown object, lost contact with the Engine 21 hose line and was caused to become disoriented,” according to the lawsuit.
In his February interview with The News, Whitehead said he didn’t recall everything that happened inside the Butler Avenue attic.
He remembered a lot of smoke and intense heat.
“I was fighting the fire and something hit me,” Whitehead told The News. “When it hit me I lost my helmet and my hose line.”
Whitehead said he became disoriented. He couldn’t find his hose. He couldn’t see.
Whitehead suffered third-degree burns – the most serious kind – to his hands. The damage extended into the tissue of his hands.
He told The News in February that he didn’t dare look at his hands once outside the house.
“I didn’t want to see,” Whitehead said in the interview. “I didn’t look at them. I knew I was hurt bad.”
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