Saturday, December 15, 2012
From the outset, Rebecca Boutin said she did not get into
firefighting for the awards, and she was only doing what any other
firefighter would do under similar circumstances.
But during a March 30 house fire on Chestnut Street,
it was Boutin, a Westfield Fire Department captain who crawled on her
belly into the heart of a smoke-filled attic moments after a flashover
explosion, who found and rescued an overcome firefighter Stephen Makos.
running low on oxygen, lost and disoriented in the thick smoke and
hellish heat, was in deep, deep trouble, and Boutin knew it. And she
said she did not hesitate to charge in there to rescue him.
“I was just thinking ‘We lost Steve. We’ve got to find him,’” she said.
The fire destroyed the house but Makos got out alive and for that, Boutin, 39, a 14-year veteran firefighter, is being lauded as a hero.
is scheduled to be honored Tuesday at the annual Firefighter of the
Year ceremony at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. Governor Deval Patrick,
Public Safety Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan and Fire Marshal
Stephan D. Coan are to present 31 awards to firefighters across the
state for heroism, bravery and community service.
“It’s a pretty weird feeling,” she said during an interview at Westfield Fire Headquarters.
told she had been selected for the honor, she said she remembers
thinking that she did what any firefighter would have done. “That’s what
we’re trained to do,” she said.
The Chestnut Street call came in
as a routine attic fire in a quiet residential neighborhood near Noble
Hospital. Boutin’s engine was the first on scene, and they brought a
line inside to the attic to where they thought the fire was, she said.
routine nature of the call changed shortly after they entered the
attic. The house, which investigators would later find was being used
for the cultivation of marijuana, was sealed tight, which caused a build-up of heat and flammable gasses in the attic, Boutin said.
Firefighters outside reported seeing a blast of flame shoot 20 feet out the windows.
“The conditions were just right,” she said.
“It’s one of those things you kind of read about,” she said. “It was
the kind of thing that a lot of people won’t run into in their careers.”
before the flashover, Makos notified her that his air tank was not
working property and he was running low on air. It wasn’t until after
they scrambled out of the attic following the flashover that anyone knew
Makos never made it out. .
“I knew he was still stuck up in that high-heat condition and he was low on air,” she said.
returned to the attic, literally crawling on the floor and hanging onto
the fire hose. Visibility was zero because of the smoke and the hose
was the only way to find her way back out again.
When she got to the end of the hose, Makos was not there.
“That’s when I got really nervous. I didn’t know where he was, I can’t
see and everything is so hot the thermal imager wasn’t showing anything
at that point,” she said. “I was thinking ‘God, were going to get killed
today, we’re going to die today.’”
Firefighters use handheld
thermal imaging devices that detect heat signatures. They can be used to
spot flames behind a wall or even a body in smoke, but Boutin said in
this case the heat in the attic was so high that the imager was useless.
lying on her stomach and holding the hose, she began to sweep her feet
out in different direction in hopes of finding Makos, reasoning that
either one of her feet would have a longer reach than her one free arm.
On one of those sweeps, her foot kicked into Makos where he was lying on
the floor. He grabbed onto it and didn’t let go.
“I kind of
grabbed onto him and he kind of grabbed onto me and then climbed over me
and I kind of threw him down the stairs,” she said.
him in the middle of the attic, about 10 to 12 feet from the attic
hatchway. She said she can only guess because she lost all track of time
how long it took to find him. Her best estimate is 30 seconds to a
“It was scary. If it was a minute long, it was the scariest minute,” she said.
said it is the first time in her career she felt in fear for her life.
“I never felt that way before. But I was more fearful for his life. He
was in more of a dire situation than I was.”
When they got
outside, both were burned through their protective clothing. Boutin had
minor burns on her shoulder, while Makos had second-degree burns to his
back and neck.
“He took on a lot of heat,” she said, adding that once he was outside, the metal air tank on his back was too hot to touch.
Fire Chief Mary Regan said there is no doubt that Boutin saved Makos’s life.
“After speaking to Steve about it there is no question that he was not
going to be able to make it out of the building (on his own),” Regan
The room rapidly filled with black smoke and visibility
was pretty much zero. Regan said. “From about six inches above the floor
and up you couldn’t see anything, not even your hand in front of you.”
“It was a serious situation and she handled it perfectly,” Regan said.
scenario was so serious that afterward, the department brought in
members of a crisis team to counsel any one troubled at how close they
had come to losing one of their own.
“When you come that close to losing somebody you deal with it head on,” Regan said.
comes from a firefighting family. Her mother is a firefighter in Agawam
and her husband is one in Chicopee. She started out as a paramedic
right after high school and then moved to firefighting. It is, as she
said, the only career she has known.
And her reasons for wanting
to do it originally -- and for continuing to do it -- have little to do
with awards and personal accolades, she said.
So, she said, while she is grateful to be recognized, it is a little bit overwhelming to be singled out.
“It’s hard to explain how I feel about it,” she said. “I’m just glad Steve was OK. That was the main thing.”