This Sunday morning started out like most Sunday mornings do for many folks in the area. Many things would change after 7 o’clock that morning. Mifflin County Emergency Services 911 Center dispatched a reported structure fire, in the 300 block of West Fourth St. in the Borough of Lewistown at 7:23 a.m. Lewistown, the county seat, is well recognized by many emergency responders as home of the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy (PSFA). In fact the Chief of the Lewistown Fire Department (LFD) is Robert “Mac” McCaa, a 24 year Resident Instructor of the PSFA.
The first responding unit, Truck 11-1 (a 95 ft. ladder-tower) from United Fire and Rescue, Station 11, was located about 6 blocks from the incident. As they drove out of the bay on to West Third St. they reported “heavy smoke” at 7:24 a.m. Their crew was already busy in the station that morning. They were preparing to attend the second day of an “Advanced Truck Company Operations” class being held at the PSFA. The instructor for that class was one of the persons sleeping at their station the previous night. He is Captain J.T. (Tweet) Brady of the Horry County, South Carolina Fire Department. Captain Brady was originally a Pennsylvania firefighter and an Adjunct Instructor for the PSFA before going to South Carolina to work for the Myrtle Beach F.D. in 1997.
An ambulance from Fame EMS went on the scene ahead of any fire department apparatus and reported they were transporting a burn victim from the house fire. Several other units reported heavy smoke while in route. Truck 11-1 arrived on scene and reported they had “a 2 story dwelling fully involved”. The next arriving units, Assistant Chief Steve Yohn and Deputy Chief Bob Douglas advised that West 4th St. would need to be closed as the first responding engine should lay a 5″ supply line from their nearest hydrant. Chief Yohn assumed command and requested the electric company be notified for assistance with live wires. Eng 11-1 (a brand new 1500 gpm engine) responded at 7:27 a.m. and stated they would lay in. Engine 13-2 (1500 gpm) from the Brooklyn Hose Co., Station 13, responded at 7:28 a.m. and acknowledged Chief Douglas’ request to lay another 5″ supply line. At 7:28 a.m. Eng 11-1 reported on-scene and began a “blitz attack” with their top mounted wagon-pipe and Rescue 14-1 (rescue/engine with rear-mount pump) from City Hook & Ladder, Station 14 responded. At 7:30 a.m. Eng 13-2 requested further information on their assignment. Hearing no response they stated they would lay to the rear of the fire building. Several other LFD support-type units responded bringing additional manpower to the scene.
Chief McCaa arrived on-scene around 7:30 a.m. after some trying moments. Living only a few blocks away from the fire building, he could see the large column of heavy black smoke when he ran through his backyard to his vehicle. Unfortunately he realized when he tried to open the driver’s door of it that his keys were locked inside. Not wanting to lose more precious time going back inside the house for a spare set of keys, he tried the right-side door, found it locked, and then decided that smashing a side-window was the next best option. It should be noted that “Mac” always teaches his students at the PSFA to have Plan B and Plan C in a ready position. After 40+ years experience he believes in “Murphy’s Law”, an imaginary Irish folklore that predicts “anything that can go wrong will”. Deputy Chief Douglas and Chief McCaa met face to face with Asst. Chief Yohn and passed the word that NO ONE should attempt entry into the structure. This was a defensive operation.
A quick knock down of the visible fire was accomplished by the master stream flow from Eng 11-1. Engine 13-1 (1500 gpm) responded from Station 13. Suddenly, at 7:32 a.m. the water stopped flowing onto the fire from Eng 11-1. About the same time Rescue 14-1 reported they were staged a half block away. Command advised the crew from Rescue 14-1 to report to the structure. Eng 13-2 then requested that Rescue 14-1 finish the hose lay for them. Eng 13-2 had laid all of the 5″ hose off their engine in an attempt to get to the rear of the fire building. They were unable to go behind the structure like they wanted and ended up going a block out of the way. Realizing that they now had a building fire, three engines on scene, and no water supply, Command Chief Yohn requested the next due engine, bringing Engine 15-1 (1500 gpm) from the Junction Fire Co. They are located in Granville Township, across the Juniata River about five blocks from the fire. They responded and were assigned to lay in to the front of the structure with a 5″ line. As they approached their assigned hydrant they saw it had already been utilized (Eng-13-2) and requested a revised assignment. They were told to lay from a hydrant a few hundred feet further away and acknowledged they could do so. At 7:36 a.m. Truck 14-1 (100 ft. aerial) reported they were staged near the scene.
Chief McCaa knew he had competent subordinate chiefs dealing with the fire so he made it an issue to try and determine what happened to the water supply to Eng 11-1. “Mac” is well known for his ability to repair fire pumps and also his knowledge of hydraulics. He constantly amazes students by calculating friction loss in his head while others try to duplicate the same using charts or calculators. He also requested the assistance of Mike Pauly, another pump mechanic and hydraulics instructor for the PSFA. He has been an active member of the LFD since the mid 1960’s. Although he lives outside the Borough of Lewistown, he is only about 6 miles away in Oliver Township. “Mac” is informed Mike has already been located. Looking at the situation they realize the 5″ hose line is solid at the intake connection. Both of them remember they had “seen this trick before”. While they were teaching a pump class many years ago, an identical situation occurred. The inside liner of the 5″ hose had separated from the outside jacket, moved with the water to the pump, and then entered the pump. On September 29 they were not going to be able to remove the liner from its new position. The pump’s impellor shaft was tight, unable to turn.
The hose lay from Eng 13-2 is completed with hose from Rescue 14-1 and the hydrant is charged. Eng 15-1 arrives with their supply line. At 7:42 a.m. more bad luck prevails and a connection comes apart in the Eng 13-2 supply line. Everyone assumed it was the connection just made between the hose from Eng 13-2 and Rescue 14-1 but it was not. Another set of couplings twisted apart for whatever reason. Of course the hydrant has to be shut down and another section of hose added. Command requests two additional engines from surrounding departments. Engine 4-1 (1500 gpm) from Highland Park Hose Co. Station 4, located in Derry Township and Engine 17-1 (1500gpm) from West Granville Fire Co., Station 17, located in Granville Township are dispatched.
After responding on Engine 17-1 at 7:50 a.m., we discuss the likely assignment for our engine while en-route. Several of us had speculated we were going to be requested as part of the RIT32 team. That is a recently formed group of firefighters that have taken specialized training and practiced performing firefighter rescue evolutions. This was not mentioned during dispatch. We assumed we might go to a ramp at the river a few blocks from the fire and set up a fill site for tankers, or lay another 5″ supply line from the fire to that ramp. While traveling the 5 miles to the fire we heard Eng 4-1 assigned to stage at Station 11 and assumed we would also be staged at another Borough Station. Surprisingly, we were asked to stage near the fire. The time is 7:51 a.m. We did not hear (radio dead-spot or too much traffic) that Command requested RIT32 to the scene. At 7:54 a.m. Eng 17-1 arrived at their assigned staging area and were asked if they had anyone for a RIT team. We assembled our RIT tools, still unaware that the RIT32 has been requested. Several hose lines were visible into the structure and numerous firefighters were see
n working outside the building on side B. As we sat up our RIT staging area near the rear of Eng 11-1 we were told by EMS Chief 12, Pat Shoop, that several firefighters were reported to be trapped. Needless to say we were shocked. Since he was standing near our position I ask Command Chief Yohn if this is true and he verified there was entrapment.
We were told one firefighter is known to be trapped at the rear of the structure, somewhere near the C-side wall. He and two other firefighters had advanced a hose line into the structure from side C and attempted to extinguish fire on the first floor (Division 1). One of them left with a SCBA problem leaving two firefighters inside. Shortly after that a collapse occurred bringing the second floor (Division 2) down on top of them. Firefighters Charles “Butch” Duncan and James “Jimmy” Fryer found themselves trapped. Jimmy was able to extricate himself and escape through the window near his location. Butch unfortunately was not as lucky. Ceiling and floor materials, furniture and other debris trapped him.
“This never happens to us” all of us thought. We were watching the firefighters working near the B-C corner of the structure at a hole in the side B wall. Command Chief Yohn and Chief McCaa asked for the RIT officer. Chief 17-2, Allan Winn walked to the A-B corner with them, then returned and gave us our assignment. Additional members of the RIT32 team arrived from Station 2, East Derry Fire Co. of Derry Township.
We were supposed to assist the firefighters already working to find the lost firefighter. “Do whatever we need to do”. Although we were still in a state of shock we collected our tools and approached the building. I tied one end of the bagged search rope to a utility pole several feet from the A-B corner of the structure. We walked about 20 ft. along side B and were unable to do much immediately because many firefighters from the LFD were in this area. I must emphasize at this moment I came to the frightening realization that we were going to be searching for, removing and preparing to bury a fellow firefighter. I told myself that I had to be strong and get the job done. We needed to act as professionally as possible, do our job safely, and respectfully bring this to a swift conclusion. I asked God for strength.
After what seemed like an eternity Chief 2-1, Ed Mann and I pushed our way to the hole at the Side B wall (see picture #2 and drawing). Ed is the Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner. He has attended many LODD funerals in the past 26 months since being appointed as the State Fire Commissioner and has been a very strong advocate of accountability and RIT teams throughout PA. We began to remove debris, including box springs from the structure by pulling it through the hole in the side B wall. This was extremely difficult, time consuming, and energy intensive. After enough debris finally came out Ed and I entered the structure and began to search for the downed firefighter. Inside the conditions at the B-C corner were moderately smoky and slightly warm. I crawled about 10 feet or so and heard someone say, “we found him and he is alive”. A huge sigh of relief came over me. I thanked God for sparing this firefighter at this point and crawled toward several firefighters. Because of so much debris I was not able to make very good time. I noticed a window on the rear wall (side C), close to the B-C corner was serving as an entry point for hose lines, firefighters, and tools. When I got to Butch, I saw Tweet Brady, Truck Captain Sam Markley of Station 11, firefighter Paul Liddick and Chief Scott Beers of Station 15, working to free Butch. Another firefighter or two were also visible but I could not identify them because they were a few feet away and in the smoke.
I realized that Butch or someone else had removed his regulator from his face piece. After asking several times and not hearing any response I asked for someone outside to send in one of the LFD RIT rescue paks. I removed the regulator from my face piece and began to share it with Butch. Shortly after that my quarter-service alarm began to sound. Most of the visible debris had been removed from Butch. Several times there was an attempt to pick him up or drag him but something had a grasp on him. When I had an opportunity I checked and told the other firefighters that it appeared Butch’s right leg was still entrapped. I stayed until every bit of air was out of the SCBA cylinder on my Scott 50 air pak. I then realized others were working without their SCBA face pieces on. I attempted to do the same but realized in 2 or 3 minutes that I was not going to be able to work without fresh air any longer. I saw the RIT rescue pak enter and excused myself through the rear wall window.
Stations 1 and 3, Burnham Fire Co. of Burnham Borough and Yeagertown Fire Co. of Derry Township were requested to respond to the scene at 8:10 a.m. When they arrived with several engines and numerous firefighters they were asked by Chief McCaa to “take over the firefighting” operations. Burnham Borough Fire Chief Wm. McCurry assumed operations of the fire. Several other pieces of equipment were requested from both Mifflin and Juniata County stations to either stage near the fire or transfer to stations in the Borough of Lewistown.
The rescue efforts to free Butch continued for what seems like an eternity. Many firefighters from the RIT32 team including retired Coast Guard F.D. Fire Chief Scott Settle, Chief 2 Charlie Harklerode, firefighter Cory Reigle and others worked to remove debris or do whatever else was needed to free the trapped individual. Firefighters from various companies worked inside or outside trying to fix this problem. Meanwhile the hose lines were operated by the firefighters of Companies 1 and 3. They had most of the visible fire extinguished but flames kept showing up at various openings, causing concerns for everyone.
After changing air cylinders and catching my breath I spoke to Chief McCaa. We discussed the possibility of entering the basement. My thought was that we might free Butch’s foot if it was through the floor where he was trapped. “Mac” told me he had already talked to the occupant of the house and made a “360 outside search” of the home and it would not be possible. While in the structure earlier, and while outside I attempted to get several firefighters to use a chainsaw and “enlarge the rear window opening”. Cutting down to the floor level and then across could do this. Although this evolution was started, it was never finished. Numerous persons were trying to help and in many ways got in one another’s way. Several attempts with various tools and equipment were tried or discussed without success.
At 8:55 a.m. the unthinkable happened. A secondary collapse occurred bringing the roof and remaining second floor material into Division 1. At least 10 firefighters were working in the area of Butch when this spectacular scenario unfolded. Once again I prayed and ask God for help. Amazingly most of the guys extricated themselves by going to one of the four outside walls and sliding or jumping out. Chief 2 was assisted through the B wall opening and taken to Fame EMS personnel. He was transported to the Lewistown Hospital ER with minor injuries including bumps and bruises. Everyone checked their personnel by doing a PAR and all firefighters were accounted for. Efforts to remove Butch continued. Additional firefighters working near Butch before or after the secondary collapse included Engine Captain Sean Markley, Lt. Terry Beasom, firefighters Travis Myers and Ron Schaeffer from Station 11; LFD Deputy Chief Douglas, Rich Bickle from Station 15, and Captain 4 Mark Earnest. Captain 14 Bob Barlett assumed a position near the B-C corner outside the structure. He functioned as an unofficial rescue liaison suggesting different tools, coordinating efforts and desperately trying to solve the dilemma.
I was assigned to try and find a way to the basement and see if there was any way to verify if Butch’s foot is or is not through the floor. Trying to ge
t enough persons to accomplish this task I recruited firefighters standing near the C-D corner that were ready and able to go to work. Several firefighters including Joe McConahy of the Burnham Fire Co joined me. We made sure an officer from Co. 1 had our names before entering. We stretched a rope into the addition on side D and turned into the area near Butch. After studying the layout of the house and talking to several people, we assumed the basement stairs should be in this area. No one could find them in any other room. While we were still trying to find the stairs we heard that Butch had been freed. The time was 9:13 a.m.
After dozens of firefighters and other emergency workers had worked so hard on what seemed like an endless task, the trapped man was out. His right foot had been part way down in a hole in the floor. He was transported to the Lewistown Hospital ER for observation and discharged a few hours later with minor injuries.
After visiting rehab and cleaning up their equipment, companies began the tasks associated with leaving the scene. LFD Fire Investigator Mike Force completed what he could of his investigation. Chief McCaa asked that a contractor be dispatched to complete the demolition of the structure to avoid leaving a hazard for several days. As the luck of this day would have it, the contractor’s bulldozer managed to hit the natural gas service line somehow and caused more aggravation for a few minutes. Penn Fuel Gas Company employees responded and resolved that issue.
The following evening 40 plus emergency responders attended a critical incident stress debriefing to clear their minds.
The following Sunday evening Chief McCaa held a critique of the incident. Over 50 emergency responders that were present during the “Goose Day” fire attended this session. Many items were discussed and several points were made. Items that should have been done or should not be repeated were:
No RIT team was initially requested when the “working fire” was confirmed
Upon the report of a trapped firefighter no PAR was taken
There was never a MAYDAY announcement
The dispatcher was confused by the initial request for RIT32
The first arriving company that was asked to serve as RIT was not informed there was a trapped firefighter
The RIT never designated a specific “rescue” officer or any other “command structure positions”
Search and rescue efforts were not clearly assigned and thus “freelancing” took place
There was too little effort to listen for the PASS devise signal of the trapped firefighter
Proper lighting was very slow being placed into the structure
Suppression efforts were inadequate near the trapped firefighter
Overall communications could have been better
Too many firefighters were inside not doing specific tasks
Many tasks to support the removal of the trapped firefighter were never started or not completed: i.e. window opening enlargement was started several times but never finished, sufficient effort was not continuous on the trapped firefighter’s foot, alternate paths of removal were not chosen quickly.
Too many firefighters were outside wanting to help but not assigned needed tasks
There were certainly many positive aspects due to the efforts of all persons involved during that day’s event. They included:
A successful rescue of a trapped firefighter was accomplished with minor injuries to him.
Rescuers received only minor injuries when the secondary collapse occurred. This was due to the use of SCBA and protective clothing.
The Incident Commander did not interfere with rescue efforts.
An on going effort was made to keep firefighters from the area whom were members of the same department and thus emotionally affected.
Level 2 accountability was established and maintained after the rescue efforts began.
Mutual-aid response from outside counties proved very valuable for rescue efforts and stand-by coverage.
County EMA response and their assistance was excellent.
CISM and Clergy were available early.
Local EMS provided ALS stand-by and REHAB services in spite of numerous other calls. Their efforts were stepped up after the secondary collapse, which required multiple EMS companies lending mutual-aid.
Everyone involved stayed until released by the IC.
Since the September 29, 2002 incident the RIT32 team has been added to numerous box alarm assignments in Mifflin County. Their members continue to educate firefighters and officers throughout the area on the team’s concept and abilities. The training of the team will focus on numerous items learned from the incident in hopes to be better than before. Fire investigators have ruled the occupants of the home accidentally started the fire with the use of a candle. The occupant recovered from her burns and is home from the hospital.
Patrick Pauly is a 33 year veteran of the fire service, employed full-time as a Fire Service Education Specialist at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.