BY MARK vonAppen
On December 6, 2010, the crew of Long Beach (CA) Fire Department (LBFD) Engine 11 (E-11) responded to a residential fire with a two-year-old boy trapped. This article examines the actions of E-11’s crew and offers insight into the factors that made this incident end as it did. This incident is a reminder that each call has its unique aspects, is affected by circumstance, and often comes perilously close to turning out differently, whether an uplifting or a heartrending conclusion.
A heavy early-morning mist hung on East Market Street as E-11 returned to Station 11. The station’s engine and rescue had been running hard all day. As the crew finished setting up the equipment for the next run, they headed to the dorm to try to get some rest.
|(1) Smoke was issuing from a second-story window on the arrival of Engine 11. [Photos courtesy of the Long Beach (CA) Fire Department.]
Twenty minutes later, the residents of an apartment complex a few miles away were awakened by the piercing shriek of a smoke detector and shouts of “Fire!” The phones in the LBFD dispatch center began to ring.
||Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department paramedics.
(He hears indiscernible shouting from the caller.)
Dispatcher: Fire Department. What’s going on?
Caller: There’s a baby in the house.
Dispatcher: OK. What’s wrong with the baby in the house?
Caller: The house is on fire! It’s a newborn—a newborn!
Dispatcher: Which apartment is it?
Caller (shouting to another resident): What apartment number is it? Apartment number 9. (It was learned in later calls to the station that the fire apartment was actually number 5.)
Dispatcher: Apartment number 9?
Dispatcher: Tell everyone to get out of the building. We’re on our way.
(Alert tones are sounded.)
Dispatcher: Area 11 Foxtrot—2676 E 55th Way, unit number 5 for an apartment fire. This will be an apartment fire with people trapped in apartment 5. Engine 11 is first due.
Ascending peals of electronic alarm tones echoed throughout the station; fluorescent lights flickered. The crews, jolted from their half-slumber, hear the voice of a female dispatcher:
||Area 11 Foxtrot—2676 E 55th Way unit number 5 for an apartment fire; this will be an apartment fire with people trapped in apartment 5. Engine 11 is first due.
In the squad bay, 10 firefighters pulled on their bunker boots and pants, donned their turnout coats, and took their assigned seats on one of the three rigs in the bay.
In less than a minute, all three units—E-11, Rescue 11, and Truck 11—were en route to the apartment fire. Engine 11 led they way, its siren wailing. While en route, the dispatch center advised the responding units that it had received multiple calls confirming the fire, and many of the callers reported that someone was trapped upstairs.
It was two miles from Station 11 to East 55th Way. The apartment complex was at the outer edge of Station 11’s response area. It was one of the longest runs in the station’s first-due district. The task force made excellent time; the first-due companies arrived in just under three and a half minutes. The public housing complex came into view on the driver’s side of E-11.
AT THE SCENE
E-11 slowed and passed the apartment building to give the captain a three-sided view and to leave room for the ladder truck. As the engine slowed, Firefighter Hakopian had one hand on the door handle and the other on the release for his seat belt and one foot in the step well. The captain evaluated the building and transmitted his size-up on the tactical channel.
|(2) A view of the front entrance of the fire apartment.
“Engine 11 is on scene. Two-story garden style apartment building with light smoke showing from the second floor. We’ll be pulling a booster.”
Hakopian announced over the headset that he would pull the booster line because the fire building was on his side. This was not normally his assigned task. Pulling the line and operating the nozzle were the jobs of the number 1 firefighter, who sits behind the captain. Hakopian, riding in the number 3 position, was responsible for wrapping the hydrant to establish a water supply, assisting with maneuvering the attack hoseline, and performing an initial search for fire victims. The E-11 captain chose to work with water from the booster tank. Because of the report of a trapped occupant, water supply would be passed to the second-due engine.
As Hakopian stepped off the driver’s side of the engine and began his mental size-up of the structure, he noted lazy white smoke rising from a second-story window and eaves. The smoke was not under pressure, indicating that the fire had not yet gained momentum. He fastened the waist strap on his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and got ready to pull the booster line. He thought, It looks like someone left something cooking on the stove too long.
A dozen or more people were gathered in the courtyard.
A panic-stricken woman in a nightgown shouted, “A child is trapped upstairs in the burning apartment.” She tugged at Hakopian’s arm and reported that a young boy was upstairs in the apartment. Hakopian told the engineer to have the firefighter in seat 3 pull the hoseline. He was going in to start the search.
The door to the apartment was open wide. The boy’s mother, who had gone out and left him alone in the apartment, had returned home and opened the door, noticed smoke, and began screaming hysterically. Residents of the complex had tried to rescue the little boy; they were driven back by smoke and fire. Hakopian paused at the entry point and peered through the open door; neither smoke nor fire was evident. He pushed inside and cleared the first floor.
Seeing that the first floor was free from hazards, Hakopian checked upstairs and noted languid muddy smoke backing down the stairwell. The smoke had banked close to waist level on the second floor. He forged up the stairs, taking care to stay low out of the smoke. He noticed a marked change in heat conditions as he moved from the cool of the first floor to the hellish surroundings of the second floor. He crested the stairs; visibility was clear beneath the smoke. He was able to chart the layout of the second floor. He now could see fire emanating from two bedrooms.
He entered a state of hyperfocus: His heart rate increased as he focused on the danger. He disregarded information his mind saw as irrelevant to the survival mission. He saw the environment with particular clarity and detail. It was exceptionally quiet at the top of the stairs. The only sounds were the crack and pop of the fire.
From his vantage point, he could see fire undulating from both bedrooms across the ceiling into the hallway. The fire cascaded mesmerizingly, resembling a luminous orange inverted waterfall. The fire’s brilliant display momentarily hypnotized him.
He could go no farther. The fire cut off his advance. At the top of the stairs, he put on his SCBA mask. Fastening his chin strap, he looked about for his captain and the nozzleman. Time was of the essence. He knew how quickly a fire left unchecked could progress. He clicked his mask-mounted regulator in place, took a deep breath, held it for a moment, exhaled slowly, and waited for his crew. He repeated the breathing procedure as he watched and waited. He used this controlled breathing technique to slow his heart rate. Intuitively, he recognized that he must keep his emotions in check. A tiny snap of fear would give him an edge in this fight; too much would be counterproductive.
||Breathe in, hold it, and let it out.
Although he couldn’t see the nozzleman before he sprinted up the stairs, Hakopian knew it would be only seconds before he would appear. Hakopian planned to recon the second floor while visibility was still good; the nozzleman would be right behind him with the hoseline to protect the search. Hakopian waited at the top stairs for what seemed to be an eternity; in reality, it was only seconds. The nozzleman entered the apartment through the front door. He saw Hakopian above him on the stairs motioning for him to pass the hoseline up the stairs.
He handed the line to Hakopian and withdrew to the first floor to put on his mask. Hakopian took the small-diameter rubber hose and nozzle and aimed it toward the ceiling that was awash with fire. Fire continued to flow like a molten torrent across the ceiling from the near bedroom and into the second bedroom. Crouching low, Hakopian dispensed water from the adjustable nozzle in short, controlled bursts on a narrow stream setting. With each quick blast from his nozzle, the fire recoiled deeper into the first bedroom.
Hakopian was careful not to open the nozzle to a wide fog pattern, as this would drive heat and fire gas downward, decreasing the possibility of survival for anyone who may be trapped. Conditions at floor level would for a time remain relatively cool in comparison to the blistering temperatures at the ceiling, offering a greater chance of survival. A firefighter skilled in the art of water application could keep it that way. Armed with this knowledge, Hakopian jabbed at the fire and drove it back into its corner.
Andy Fredericks said, “Fog streams have their place, but not during interior firefighting. The safety of both building occupants and firefighters rests on the success of the first handline. An adequate flow volume delivered in the form of a straight or solid stream is the best means of ensuring this success.”
The heat and fire conditions permitted Hakopian to advance in a low squat as he pushed toward the first bedroom, penciling the fire as he advanced. As he entered the first bedroom, his feet were cut from beneath him. His left foot penetrated the floor first; his body weight caused more of the floor to fail. He instinctively spread out in an attempt to catch himself. He extended his arms and legs outward. In an instant, he fell through the floor up to his chest and was resting on his elbows. He concluded that he had two basic options: He could try to free himself by pushing up from the hole in the floor or, if the floor continued to crumble from beneath him, he could plunge the remaining four feet and land in a heap on the first floor.
|(3) The hole created when Firefighter Hakopian fell through the floor.
“It all happened so quickly; as I braced myself with my arms, I could look down and see light coming from the first floor. That’s when I knew I needed some help,” Hakopian would later explain in an interview.
As chance would have it, he was in the right position when the small section of floor disintegrated beneath him. Had he been crawling head-first, instead of crouching, he would have fallen more than 10 feet on his head or back, which could have resulted in serious injury. He could see as he looked between his body and the floor joists light coming from the first floor. He realized something was wrong. He kicked his legs and pushed himself up with his arms. His feet found a first-floor wall. In seconds, he pushed and kicked himself free of the hole.
The nozzleman clicked his regulator in place and was at the threshold as Hakopian sprang from the hole. Hakopian shouted to him from inside the bedroom: “Watch out; I just went down.”
The nozzleman has no idea of what had just taken place. He was on the first floor putting on his mask when his partner crashed through the second floor. Hakopian was up and out of the hole before anyone could notice. The nozzleman was incredulous. He wasn’t sure whether Hakopian had simply fallen or was entangled in wires that had fallen from the ceiling.
“What happened?” he asked as he scanned the floor with the thermal imaging camera (TIC) and saw the outline of the hole in the floor between him and his partner. It was still burning. The floor joists and the floor materials were burning. He scanned the bedroom from the hallway. Beyond the hole, he saw Hakopian near the bed as he rummaged through the room, scouring it urgently for the little boy. He completed his tactile search of the room, satisfied that no one was inside. He exited the room and joined the nozzleman in the hallway.
A firefighter from Engine 12 joined them in the passageway. He nudged past them, blasting the fire that was now seething from the second bedroom with the 1¾-inch hoseline he was carrying and being careful not to interrupt the delicate thermal balance. Holding at the first doorway with the booster line and the TIC, the nozzleman monitored fire conditions and protected the search, ensuring that another firefighter did not go through the floor.
The fire in the second bedroom withdrew as the E-12 firefighter prodded it. Surprisingly, heat conditions in the hallway were tolerable—in a small space such as this, heat usually develops rapidly. The window had failed in the second bedroom, carrying the heat away from the firefighters and the little boy, Justin. The combination of the open front door and the shattered window allowed the heat to escape, contributing greatly to Justin’s chances of survival.
Hakopian shoved past the E-12 nozzleman, who turned the hoseline to the fire coming from the closet. He had only a moment to distinguish the room’s layout before the room would go black. The fire and water combination would produce a steam cloud that would rob the firefighters of their ability to see. A closet was to his right, a bed was in the center of the room, and a window was to his left. Hakopian crashed the right side of the room, sweeping the area of the floor closest to the fire looking for the child. Finding nothing on the floor, he turned his focus to the bed. He searched the top. It was empty. He made his way to the foot of the bed and searched on the bed’s left side, nearest the window. The smoke and steam lifted momentarily. He looked down. He saw the shape of a young child’s hand. The child was lying face down and motionless on the floor.
|(4) Fire issued from this closet in the room where the child was discovered.
He scooped the boy into his arms, cradling him gently and pulling him close to his body in an effort to shield him from the heat. The little boy did not stir when he was picked up. Hakopian felt heat from the little boy through his thick firefighting gloves. Hakopian didn’t check for breathing or a pulse. He knew he had to get the boy to fresh air quickly. He was hot to the touch; he had been in there cooking for a while. The boy did not move.
|(5) Hakopian located the child to the left of the bed underneath the window.
Justin was discovered in the only place in the room where he could possibly have survived, between the bed and the window. The fire that raged from the closet on the opposite side of the bed caused the window to shatter. The natural ventilation carried the intense heat right over Justin. The bed acted as a shield, insulating him from the inferno. The toddler was overcome by smoke but was relatively unburned. Hakopian started for the front door with the child in his arms. As he exited the bedroom, he could hear the chain saw of Truck 11 on the roof.
Rescue 11 and Engine 9, assigned to the Medical Group, had their medical equipment and a gurney ready to accept the toddler. Hakopian handed Justin to a paramedic. She placed the child on the bed. She and her partner immediately began resuscitation efforts. As they were about to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, she touched Justin’s chest. His heart was beating. The four firefighters from E-9 supported the resuscitation attempts. The medics followed a well-rehearsed script as they worked to bring the little boy back to life.
Hakopian stepped away and removed his helmet and mask, his hands shaking. He could hear the pounding of his heart in his ears; his heart rate soared. He inhaled profoundly as he tried to regain his breath and slow his heart rate. He watched for any sign of life from the little boy as the medics continued to treat the child according to protocol. The boy showed no signs of life. Hakopian’s heart felt heavy as he observed the medics administering treatment. He thought the boy would not make it.
Until now, Hakopian didn’t have time to think about the personal aspect of the situation. From the time of dispatch and throughout the rescue, he had simply responded to the situation at hand. He couldn’t develop emotional attachments to the situation as it evolved; emotion would cloud his judgments and possibly even cause him to hesitate at the moment of rescue. Until now, he had only thought about the rescue in detached terms—he was searching for a victim, not a little boy. He did what he had to do. That victim now had a face and the tiny features of a two-year-old child. Now, he sensed the emotion of the circumstances, and they began to weigh on him. The little boy was not responding to treatment.
The crowd gathered in the courtyard was kept at a distance by police officers. The crowd had watched the entire event unfold before their eyes; some had even tried to rescue Justin before the fire department arrived. They were emotionally involved. They knew the little boy who played in the courtyard. The group had looked on helplessly as the firefighters arrived and dashed inside. They watched as the window on the second floor shattered and a sheet of flame issued angrily.
Their emotions alternated from hope to despair and then hope again as a firefighter emerged from the burning building with little Justin. The little boy could not have looked worse. All vestiges of life had left him.
The group of firefighters and paramedics that surround the gurney started as one toward the rescue truck. The gurney was loaded in the back. With the medical personnel accompanying the boy, the rig set off for Long Beach Memorial Hospital. On the way to the hospital, the boy began to breathe again.
Justin’s mother was arrested that night and charged with felony child abuse and neglect. Justin suffered severe smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his feet. Investigators said if he had been in the apartment any longer, he might not have survived. He was listed in critical condition on his arrival at the hospital. After a few days, he made what doctors called a “miraculous recovery.” Today, he is alive and well.
The successful outcome of this incident was contingent on many factors, including the thorough training of the responders.
The fire had been burning in a ceiling void above the stove, the result of a faulty kitchen exhaust fan. It burned undetected until it had grown to the point so that the apartment’s occupants (Justin’s mother among them) noticed it when they returned home around 1:20 a.m. Little Justin, alone, likely sought refuge in his mother’s room, hiding next to the bed until carbon monoxide caused him to lose consciousness.
The rapid arrival of the first crews and their decisive action at the right time, while the fire was still developing, were other critical factors. Had the fire progressed beyond the development stage to flashover, it would not have been possible to search. The booster line would have been no match for the heat produced by the fire, and Justin would have burned to death.
The fire, although it had burned concealed in a void for almost five hours, was in its development or incipient stage when the crew from Station 11 arrived, allowing Hakopian to perform a quick reconnaissance of the second floor while it was still safe to do so.
Through the years, there has been significant discussion regarding the tactical employment of fog streams for firefighting purposes. Fog nozzles have been around for almost 150 years. Today, the disagreement between fog and straight-stream supporters continues. In this case, a victim was in the fire compartment, the fire was still in its growth phase, it was relatively unobstructed, and it had self-ventilated; therefore, the short, controlled straight stream attack was the most suitable fire control method. The E-11 crew did not use a fog pattern when attacking the fire, which would have pushed the products of combustion down to the floor, eliminating Justin’s chances of survival.
Hakopian’s fall happened before the rapid intervention company (RIC) was on scene. It is significant to point out that the RIC was from a mutual-aid agency and may not have been entirely familiar with LBFD’s operational policies. If Hakopian had become entrapped to a greater level and was not able to free himself, valuable time and resources would have been consumed in an attempt to rescue him. Under these circumstances, Justin, in all likelihood, would not have survived. When things go wrong on the fireground, they happen quickly and can swiftly get away from you, sometimes permanently. You must be prepared for the unexpected.
Keep in mind that, frequently, firefighter emergencies are remedied by the firefighter experiencing the emergency or a nearby crew. A large percentage of fireground emergencies, nearly 85 percent, occur in the first 20 minutes of an incident and involve the first-in company. Hakopian noted later: “I couldn’t call a Mayday even if I wanted to. I couldn’t reach my radio. I knew that my nozzleman was right there. I could hear the clicking of his regulator. Luckily, I pulled myself out.”
The trouble is the disaster arc gradually builds and then abruptly spikes—growing out of control rapidly. The more trouble firefighters are in and the more they try to correct it, the more trouble they are likely to get into—expending energy and air, which decreases their chances of reaching safety. When the floor crumbled beneath Hakopian, he was able to free himself. His ability to resolve his own rescue dilemma was a pivotal moment in this scenario.
It is important for firefighters to promptly open ceilings and void spaces to check for hidden fire as they move into and through the building and that they survey the building for indications of structural weakness and then advise fellow firefighters and company officers of their findings.
Search demands a high level of training and a timely completion. Numerous fireground operations demand these attributes; however, having to conduct searches in foreign environments under hazardous conditions, and within critical time constraints, sets search apart from other fireground activities.
Rescuing a victim from a fire can happen in one of two ways: remove the victim from the fire or use active fire suppression to eradicate the fire. Many small fires have become infernos because of the delay in suppression in favor of search and rescue operations, adding greatly to the hazard of the interior search. If it is quickly determined that crews are confronted with a room-and-contents fire that has not extended into the structural members, customary vent-enter-search (VES) tactics are generally appropriate. As the late Tom Brennan noted: “Venting of peaked-roof private dwellings immediately on arrival is a waste of time. Instead of venting, we need to try to reach any victims from inside the structure and from an opening to every room in which a human can survive from the outside—by VES or whatever means possible.”
Time and again, the importance of managing emotions while operating on the fireground becomes apparent. Hakopian and crew arrived to an extremely emotionally charged scene. The natural reaction of responders with less training experiencing these same conditions likely would have been to charge into the apartment, blast the fire indiscriminately, bring the fire to full extinguishment, and have another crew to perform the primary search. The LBFD personnel employed discipline and expertise in their suppression techniques. Through a thorough reading of the environment, the crew recognized the fire situation and that the fire conditions allowed for potential victim survival. E-11 blended suppression theory and search techniques, maintaining the fragile thermal balance and ensuring the greatest opportunity for success.
“If I can take one thing from our training that is invaluable, it is that we are always told to think on our feet,” Hakopian says. “We always hear in our department, ‘We’re not going to train you to be a robot.’ ” Well-scripted and choreographed fireground operations do not happen on their own. Firefighters must train to the point that thinking is removed from basic operations—taking the thinking out of fighting. However you rehearse will be how you will perform under stress. Chaos is measured in minutes and seconds. The ability to think on your feet and immediately adapt to the situation encountered is crucial when seconds count. Skills that are to be performed under stress must be practiced well in advance of the emergency.
Ron Avery, a law enforcement trainer and a world-class competitive pistol shooter, pushes the envelope in terms of stress-related training. He calls the process “stress indoctrination.” It is based on the concept that prior successes under stressful circumstances acclimatize you to similar situations and promote future success. Avery describes the process this way:
||With proper training and the requisite conditioning and practice, we can achieve skills thought by others to be impossible. There is a whole realm of possibilities we can teach and train (personnel) to perform. Stress acclimatization is about measuring precise doses of stress followed by waves of recovery and then repeating these cycles very specifically. There must be time for adaptation to take place, and there must be enough training, repeated over time, to help it stick.
Strong training practices employed by the LBFD and the crews on scene paid off for the Station 11 crews with life-saving dividends. Intense training practices are intended to develop emotional attachment to the situations encountered. These deep attachments to the basics must be developed early and reinforced often. Strong fireground performance is the combination of communication (both verbal and nonverbal), dedication, mentoring, and training—all of which culminate in a shared understanding of what each of the crew members’ responsibilities are, how they interrelate, and how to anticipate future actions. Here was a moment of truth where correct action arose out of an almost ideal blending of the linear and the nonlinear. Crews must believe that each firefighter and every company is highly trained and that they belong to a solid, skilled, efficient organization that knows where it is going and what it has to do.
Grossman, Dave with Christensen, Loren W. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace, Third Edition. (2008). Warrior Science Publications.
Hakopian, Charles. Personal interviews, February and March 2011.
Malone, Dandridge M. (U.S. Army Ret.). Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach. (1983). Random House Publishing Group.
Manzer, Tracy. “Rescued Toddler’s Condition Improving,” Long Beach Press Telegram, December 8, 2010.
McGrail, David M. Firefighting Operations in High-Rise and Standpipe-Equipped Buildings. (2007). PennWell Corporation.
Mittendorf, John. “The Most Dangerous Fireground Activity,” August 2010. Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Fund.
MARK vonAppen, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Suppression Division, where he is a captain. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of firefighter survival and rapid intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.