By Larry O’Connor
Summit Township firefighters knew their captain was in peril, but a distress signal pinpointing his whereabouts was muted in the smoke and flames. Capt. Scott Thornton, 39, died after colleagues found him face down in a second-floor bedroom while battling a blaze Thursday morning at 824 Brown’s Lake Road. The accidental fire started after a discarded rag with staining finish ignited in a southeast basement area, said Sgt. Ken Hersha, state police fire investigator.
Those findings were overshadowed by circumstances surrounding the death of the 19-year firefighting veteran.
While inside the house, Thornton’s personnel accountability systems alarm went off, meaning heat and smoke became dangerously high or he activated it himself to indicate he was in distress. In doing so, though, the third-generation firefighter collapsed on top of the warning device, muffling the high-pitch shrill designed to alert rescuers of a downed firefighter’s location, Fire Chief Mike Hendges said. Amid heavy smoke, Thornton likely became disoriented and passed out, Hendges said. He died of smoke inhalation, an autopsy found.
“We’re experiencing extreme grief, as you can imagine,” said Hendges, who gathered with department members at Foote Hospital on Thursday morning.
Three Summit firefighters, including Jim Warner who found Thornton, were treated for smoke inhalation at Foote. Firefighters Brian Ledford and Larry Witkowski also were treated and released.
After firefighters doused remaining hot spots around noon, the state police fire marshal and county fire-investigation team located the fire’s origin in a recently remodeled area. The brick structure had been remodeled after a fire damaged the lakefront home last year. Less than 12 hours earlier, Thornton served as incident commander when township firefighters extinguished a house fire 4276 Springbrook Road.
Hersha frequently saw the captain coordinating firefighting efforts. “He cared a lot about his crews and his men,” Hersha said. “He took fire scenes very seriously.” After arriving at 7:11 a.m., Thornton entered the Brown’s Lake Road structure with firefighter Brian Ledford. The lone occupant, Phil Willis, was out of the house. His wife, Pat Willis, had left earlier. At one point, an alarm sounded, letting Ledford know he needed to replenish his oxygen supply, Hendges said. Thornton returned to the doorway with Ledford, who was then replaced by firefighter Brian Terry. Thornton and Terry re-entered in an attempt to find the fire’s source, Hendges said. Flames were not visible at that point, which led firefighters back in to find the source of the smoke, Hendges said. The fire, which started in the basement’s southeast corner, had rapidly surged and started to burn through the second floor. “That’s when things rapidly deteriorated,” Hendges said. When Thornton ran out of air, Terry attempted to “buddy breathe” with the captain, Hendges said. Thornton fell to the floor, prompting Terry to leave to break a window to aid in removing his colleague. When Terry returned to the spot, Thornton was gone, Hendges said. Then by “luck,” Terry managed to find a stairwell in thick smoke and exited the structure, which quickly erupted into flames, Hendges said. “He didn’t know at that point if Captain Thornton also found the stairs as well,” Hendges said. “He didn’t realize Captain Thornton still was inside until he was outside.” In addition to his locator alarm, Thornton sent out a distress call over the radio, which was heard by emergency personnel countywide. “They called a ‘Mayday.’ Then they stopped talking,” said Larry Bosell, Jackson Fire Department’s acting chief, about the radio transmission.Dispatch records to examine radio traffic and other communication during the incident are being compiled, said John Worden, former Summit Township fire chief and now a consultant. The Blackman Township Public Safety Department is assisting in the investigation. Though equipment malfunction wasn’t believed responsible, Thornton’s self-contained breathing apparatus and other gear was quarantined. “We are going to have that piece of equipment (self-contained breathing apparatus) tested for our own peace of mind,” Hendges said. In addition to being a 19-year department veteran, Thornton was a state fire council-certified instructor. “I can’t stress enough the confidence his fellow firefighters had in Scott’s abilities,” Hendges said. “His knowledge and skills were excellent.” Friday, January 21, 2005