By Willoughby Mariano and Susan Jacobson Sentinel Staff Writer
(FireFighterCloseCalls.com NOTES: This article has been re-posted due to requests 2/06)
November 24, 2002
KISSIMMEE — For the first 10 minutes, the training exercise seemed so ordinary.
Osceola and Orlando firefighters lighted a fire in the closet of an abandoned house. It burned. Flames shot through a window. Firefighters sprayed water and the flames died down.
Then Orlando fire engineer Tim Wright poked a metal pole through the broken pane of a plate-glass bedroom window and pulled out a white fire helmet, still aflame.
Something was wrong. But firefighters had yet to discover that Osceola Lt. John Mickel and rookie Dallas Begg had died in a superheated burst of flame and smoke, merely feet from others who survived, according to transcripts of interviews with firefighters on the scene July 30.
Through hundreds of pages of transcripts and reports released last week, firefighters tell investigators about the tumultuous minutes during what seemed like a typical live-burn exercise — and how they stumbled through a narrow passageway against the blistering heat, steam and dense smoke, unaware that the training exercise already had turned deadly.
This fire was supposed to be the first in a series that training day, and Lt. John Simpson, the scene commander, planned few surprises for the patch of overgrown grass and abandoned buildings at the former Florida Bible College, according to the transcript of his Aug. 12 interview.
The “victim” was a life-size mannequin dressed in a fire helmet and jacket, and firefighters knew the layout of the house.
Simpson gave them a tour, pointed out the closet where the fire would burn and set the ground rules: Ten short blasts of a horn meant firefighters must evacuate immediately.
Osceola firefighter Steve Carroll set fire to straw and wood pallets with a flare. Two Orlando firefighters shoved a mattress across the bedroom floor to Osceola firefighter Bryan Harris, who said he tossed it on the flames.
Then they walked out of the room.
“I heard a distinctive sound,” Harris said. “It went something like ‘whoosh,’ and I had made the comment, ‘there went the mattress.’ “
That mattress may have helped cause a flashover, superheated flame that ignites everything nearby, even the air, according to the investigator’s report.
At 10:10 a.m., Carroll radioed to Simpson: “Interior’s ready; go ahead and send them in,” Harris recalled.
Roof flames cause concern
Outside, in the tall grass, an Osceola fire observer focused her video camera on firefighters as they pulled on air packs, masks and other gear. Carey Graham, an Osceola fire inspector, sat out front on a lawn chair and signaled Mickel with a “thumbs up.”
Mickel returned it and disappeared with Begg into the burning house. It was Begg’s eighth day on the job and Mickel’s 10th year. Together they formed the exercise’s search-and-rescue team. Their mission: to sweep the home’s interior and rescue the victim.
Other teams followed as Graham watched the thick, black smoke rise in the front bedroom behind a pane of glass.
The fire seemed small. There were barely any flames, he told investigators.
Around 10:13 a.m., on orders from Simpson, Wright walked to the bedroom window and used a firefighter’s pole to break it.
The move was supposed to help firefighters inside by clearing smoke and heat away. Instead, the fresh air fueled the deadly flashover, according to reports.
Smoke and flames jumped through the hole and licked the roof, Graham said, then subsided as quickly as they started. Something seemed wrong.
“I remember looking around at everybody thinking that wasn’t right, and didn’t seem right. But nobody else seemed to be concerned,” Graham said.
Graham also noticed a silhouette, the form of a firefighter inside the burning bedroom. At the time, he thought it was a member of an attack team squirting water with a hose. But when night fell hours later and the accident was over, he realized he was wrong.
“When I had later learned that Dallas Begg was pulled from that area, I figured that’s what I saw,” Graham said.
No response starts panic
Inside, firefighters could not see the fire they fought. They could not even see each other. The smoke was too thick. They identified each other through touch and through the sounds of their voices. To avoid the heat, they kept low to the ground.
The sequence of events is unclear from the transcripts, but Harris thinks Begg bumped into him as he rushed into the building, nearly knocking him over. Carroll said he heard Mickel talking to Begg, teaching the younger man how to conduct a search.
“I remember hearing Mickel say, ‘Did you search the room completely?’ and Begg saying, ‘Yes.’ ” Carroll said. “That’s the only thing I really heard clearly. They were talking like a rescue crew . . . “
That was the last anyone heard from the men.
Towing a fire hose, engineer Dennis Whittemore and two other firefighters of attack team one ran in behind Mickel and Begg, squeezing through one tiny room, then a narrow passageway 2 feet wide, then another cramped room.
The fire was hot and needed water, so Orlando engineer Randy Dickson asked if everybody was out of the burning bedroom.
“They’re out,” someone responded.
“And I said, ‘They’re out of this area, out of the fire room? And he said, ‘Yes,’ ” Dickson said.
They were wrong.
Whittemore pulsed water into the darkness, shooting searing steam onto Harris’ back. The steam may have pushed Mickel and Begg back into the blazing bedroom, an investigator’s report says.
“I started to just feel steam on my shoulders, my hands, my neck,” Harris said. “I got as low as I could. At one point I was even on my stomach; I just couldn’t shake it.”
Harris ran outside with Carroll, stumbling over Orlando Lt. Michael Pelletier and firefighter Thad Heath of attack team two as they pushed forward and opened their nozzle.
By the time Carroll exited, Simpson already was worried.
He had watched Wright pull out the shell of the helmet from the bedroom window, and he realized there could be a problem.
“It kind of threw me for a loop because it was white, and I was trying to figure who would have a white helmet on in the building?” Simpson said. “And things were starting to, to, click in my head.”
He hadn’t heard from the search-and-rescue team. Maybe no one had.
At 10:17, Simpson called out over the radio for Mickel and Begg. No response.
At 10:18, Simpson called out again, and a minute later he asked if anyone was missing a helmet.
At 10:23, Simpson gave the order to evacuate and sent Dickson into the smoky darkness with a flashlight. He needed to account for his men.
Sirens blast as men work
Ten horn blasts sounded, the signal to leave.
Pelletier of attack team two turned to tell Heath to evacuate, but then he caught a glimpse of what he thought was a mannequin. He reached to pull it from the fire.
“I remember the air pack coming apart; the gear was actually starting to come apart as we were trying to drag, still at this point not realizing,” Pelletier said.
“What I was still thinking [was] it was the rescue mannequin, until we rolled him over and the air mask actually came off his face and we realized that it was a firefighter,” Pelletier said.
They radioed for help. Others scrambled to pull Mickel’s body out through the window.
One was Orlando engineer Walt Lewis, who threw off his air mask, helmet and air pack and went to work on Mickel, trying to revive him on the ground. Time seemed to shift, he said. His vision felt altered
“I guess the best way to describe it is in some war movies that kind of show where the one person is focused on something and everything else behind, around, is a blur,” Lewis said. “That’s the way it seemed.”
Then a helmet flew out of that blur, a sign that a firefighter was signaling for help. Dickson had found Begg propped up by the window. Another firefighter down.
Simpson called for helicopters and ambulances. Paramedics worked. Sirens wailed. The ambulances arrived and took Begg and Mickel away.
Dazed, the men pulled off their gear and walked out onto the weedy grass and dead leaves. They knelt and said nothing.