Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal October 22, 2004
Some Memphis firefighter recruits say the “Hell Night” exercise they endured — and that landed trainee James A. Coleman in a coma — was a far cry from the one Fire Department officials described. Director Richard Arwood said recruits had regular 15- to 20-minute breaks during the eight-hour session Oct. 12 and that instructors monitored recruits’ pulse and breathing. But several recruits told The Commercial Appeal the only people having their vital signs checked were the seven loaded onto ambulances. Some said there was a bell they had to ring if they couldn’t handle Hell Night’s rigors. Nobody wanted to ring it, they said, but a few did. Department brass said the training wasn’t meant to humiliate recruits so they wouldn’t have required recruits to ring a bell if they were unable to go on.
After hearing details about Hell Night, Larry Anderson, of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association in Massachusetts, said it sounded a lot like hazing. He said that type of training, made to break recruits, is uncalled for. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, citing potential lawsuits, won’t comment. Fire officials now say they are doing a thorough investigation of what happened on Hell Night. Coleman has been unconscious since. Six recruits suffering dehydration were treated at area hospitals. Doctors said Coleman didn’t have a heart attack or stroke and seemed in good physical condition, his family said. They don’t know what happened but fear he may have gone too long without oxygen. Arwood, the fire director, said details he gave out last week about Hell Night were based on standard training procedures. Now, he said, department officials are questioning many of those involved, from recruits to instructors.
The emotions from having a recruit collapse into a coma made it difficult to get a firm grasp of what happened, he said. “We’re now seeing that the full investigation is what’s going to really get the facts for us.” Nine recent academy graduates and fire recruits, including some who called The Commercial Appeal to talk about the incident, shared their Hell Night experiences. They asked that their names not be published for fear of losing their jobs.
Some said the training was intended to break them, while others called it necessary preparation for fighting real-world fires. A firefighter from Class 84, which graduated in February after having its own Hell Night, said his training was tough, but not over the top. And he said there were adequate breaks.
Others — including some from Coleman’s class — described recruits vomiting in their masks, gasping and wheezing for air and being pushed to the point that they nearly threw up liquids while drinking. On Oct. 12-13, the current recruit Class 85, whose members started in July and are about halfway through, was split into two groups. About 45 went through training the first night. From there, the group was broken into smaller teams of four to six recruits, who went through exercises, called “evolutions,” through the afternoon and night.
They jogged the “Memphis Mile” between the Frayser fire and police training centers, carrying a 40-pound hose pack and wearing full firefighter gear, including jacket, pants, boots and gloves — and weighing about 35 pounds. An air mask, tank and back plate added another 35 pounds. If someone dropped a pack, which happened Oct. 12, the whole group ran the Memphis Mile again, recruits said.
They used the short breaks to guzzle water and Gatorade. In another evolution, they chopped wood for three minutes, while wearing full gear. They also carried a nearly 200-pound dummy about 100 feet. During all this, recruits said, instructors harassed them and told them to ring the bell if they couldn’t take any more. Ringing the bell would be admitting failure — and nobody wanted to do it, they said. An evolution called “Shake and Bake” put recruits in a dark tower where they take off their gear, get it reassembled and back on in a minute. Some groups that didn’t make the time cut had to run the tower’s stairs. Others said punishment for mistakes was doing pushups or running a mile. They rappelled off a six-story tower and ran about 40 yards carrying a pressurized hose, which takes tremendous work to control. They were blindfolded in a dark, smoke-filled building, crawling on hands and knees to reach a water nozzle, then had to follow the hose line to find their way out.
The first set of evolutions lasted about four hours, then they broke for a 30-minute lunch, and started again, putting out propane, car and building fires and rescuing someone trapped in a car. The training was cut short by Coleman’s collapse, recruits said. Thursday, the 41-year-old was strapped to a bed in Methodist North Hospital’s intensive care unit. He’s breathing on his own, family said, and his eyes flutter and limbs move, but he hasn’t regained consciousness. It’s a waiting game, his brother Gregory Coleman, 38, said. The family’s priority is his brother’s health, but they also want fire officials to say what happened, he said. “The secrecy of it all has bothered me.”