By Mark vonAppen
I sit across from Gary “Blackjack” Ells as we wait for lunch at a bustling taqueria in Milpitas, California. The old man (a term of endearment used by firefighters who know and love him) has a surplus of nervous energy, some part of his body is in constant motion; he wrings his hands, his legs vibrate, and his eyes dart back and forth about the room as we sit awaiting our food.
We are in Milpitas for Blackjack’s three-day tactics and strategy class. I am his liaison (driver) for the three days that he is to lecture. Chief Ells is a known industry expert who teaches, writes, speaks, eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives firefighting. He has seen more fire in his career than most of us can imagine. If you’re like me, you can imagine quite a bit.
He says to me, “You know Marty,” my name is Mark, but out of deference I don’t dare to correct him. “You never get over it.”
“What’s that Chief?” I ask, distracted by the smell of warm tortillas and the smoky scent of seasoned meat roasting on the indoor grill, not entirely certain of what he’s insinuating. I absent-mindedly rearrange the tortilla chips in the paper-lined bowl with my fingers.
“Call me Gary, Marty,” he pauses. “You just never get over it,” he pauses again and stares out the plate glass window, squinting into the midday sun, hands writhing, feet bouncing off the floor. “I’ll tell you Marty, you never get over it when you lose somebody.”
Still uncertain of where he’s going with this, and perplexed by the fact that he keeps screwing up my name, I sit quietly and listen. Keeping my mouth shut does not come easily and as much as Blackjack’s body is in motion my mouth moves at an equal rate, sometimes without much – or any – forethought. Blackjack pushes from the table and leans back in his chair. He draws in a deep breath as his still darting eyes begin to swell with tears. “I lost a man once, 30 years ago. I’ll never get over it.”
His mind retrieves the memory, long ago categorized and filed away, one of millions in a lifetime of memories. As it is gleaned from its box the wound is as fresh as it was on January 15, 1980, the pain and worry of years smashed on top of years cut into his face, the demon leaps from the shadow region of the old man’s mind once again. Blackjack travels back in time to the night when the roof collapsed on 10 Tempe firefighters – his men – during a 4-alarm fire.
“We were on our own. I knew that firefighters were going to die that night.”
“I remember seeing the entire ceiling and roof assembly crashing down towards me. We had no time. I was crushed and pinned to the floor from the chest down. The amount of weight that I felt on top of me was indescribable.
I heard a voice screaming, ‘Help me! Help me!’ Then there was silence. I’m still haunted by those shouts for help. My feeling of helplessness was overpowering. In the distance I could hear emergency traffic being announced over the radio, but I knew there was no one outside to help us.
We were on our own. I knew that firefighters were going to die that night.
I struggled to push up, out, roll over, anything, but nothing worked. My mind flashed to my family, my crew, and my own certain death if I couldn’t wriggle free.
Very quickly I could see the fire directly above me. I said a short prayer as I continued to struggle. As I battled, the weight of the roof shifted and I was able to free one leg and then another from the debris, the weight was off of me and I could breathe.
I looked to my right and saw only darkness. I looked to the left and saw light and an area free from debris against the wall. I tunneled under the debris for about 45 feet, anywhere tables and chairs gave me room to move. Finally, I reached a clear spot and I used the wall to stand up. I looked to the south, towards the front doors and I was met by a curtain of flame only feet from me that reached 30 to 40 feet into the air. Directly above me was the tip of the aerial from Ladder 1 (L1). I wished furtively that someone from L1 was on the aerial and would see me to pull me out, but there was no one there. I looked to the north and saw the remains of the deli, its contents upside down and broken, nothing was in it’s place.
I looked up again and saw the night stars, I was transfixed by how brightly they shown. The paradox was enormous.
My position was being consumed by fire as my mind raced from everything I had been taught about firefighter survival to the fact that I couldn’t find anyone else. I was alone, injured, and I was quickly coming to the realization that no one was going to find me. I believed I was the only one alive and that nobody on the outside knew it. As I tried to find my way out each obstacle I encountered brought devastation and with each obstacle that I cleared, elation.
I was taught early in my career that the only time death is certain is when you give up. I couldn’t quit.
I recalled an update from Rescue 1 (R1), the voice was that of Ed Gaicki, ‘We went down the west hallway to a room and we are removing an occupant from the back of the building.’ I knew escape was possible.
The deli counters were tall and slanted back. I had to get over them to escape the fire and make it to the hallway, the only possible way out. On my third attempt I made it over the counter. I landed upside down on the other side and started for the hallway 50 feet away. I heard the sound of metal striking a hard object, I realized quickly that it was the sound of an SCBA bottle hitting the wall. I crawled towards the sound and ran into a cinder block wall, I could feel the grout lines and realized I was at the west wall. A partition had collapsed against the wall leaving a lean-to passage.
I continued along the wall – in black out conditions and high heat – following the sound, when I heard heavy breathing. I sensed there was a firefighter in front of me. As soon as I felt I was close enough, I reached out to touch him. He screamed as I grabbed him, I had scared him terribly.
It was a firefighter from my company. I told him, ‘It’s me, Captain Ells. We’re going home tonight. I know the way out. Follow me.’ It was something I had to hear myself say. I was thankful to God for helping me find someone alive and then I heard more voices. The voices were from two more firefighters who had dug themselves out of a lean-to that the large counters had provided.
I had most of my crew. I told them that I knew the way out and that we were going home. I had them hold on to each other and we proceeded north down the hallway. The heat continued to climb and I could not see the beam of my flashlight even as I held it to my mask.
The hallway seemed to go on forever and we finally reached a partition wall and turned east. I felt a door on my left and I thought I had reached the restrooms. I told the crew to hold fast and I searched the restroom looking for a window. I scoured the walls with my hands but I found no window. I searched the exterior wall again and found nothing. I abandoned the room and rejoined the crew in the hallway.
We continued east along the wall and came across another restroom. I pushed through the door and searched the room, same story, no window. We proceeded east under heavy heat conditions as some of the crew members were on their last breaths of air.
We found yet another door, I read the hinges and determined that it opened towards us, but debris kept it from opening. I knew the back door was only feet away, all we had to do was get past the door and we could go home. All of our tools were lost in the collapse so I decided I’d breach it the hard way.
I backed up a few feet and slammed my body into the door, convinced it would cave in from the force. It barely shuddered. I tried again and achieved the same result. Nothing.”
He escapes the specter of memory momentarily and glances at me, then his gaze again turns back to the window as he drifts once more into thought. His mask of worry is replaced by one of fervent resolve.
“Marty, you have to understand that we were hurt, and we had traveled an impossible distance – 180 feet – under extreme conditions, the fire was almost upon us and we were out of options. I gave my mask to my crew and sat back on my heels, I told them I was sorry, but we couldn’t go any farther. The men were silent and I could feel the heat coming in waves burning the back of my head and it reflected off the door, burning my face at the same time.
“I couldn’t believe it. We were going to die just feet from the back door.”
I didn’t know what to do next. I hadn’t delivered my men to safety as I had promised and we were going to die only feet from the back door. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to think of something meaningful to say but I couldn’t summon the words. The only sound we could hear was the fire, it was very close.
Without warning the blocked door caved in over our heads and I could see a streetlight as it shown from outside the back door. Standing outside the door was a firefighter; his first words are etched in my mind. ‘Hey, do you guys know that they want you out of the building?’
I looked up at him and said, ‘No shit!’
The firefighter extended a hand and plucked the three firefighters out the door one at a time. When he returned for me, I was still on my heals so he helped me to my feet. Smiling, he asked, ‘Are you ready to leave now?’ I nodded my head, and together we walked through the door.
We survived. I could see the brilliant stars again and feel the cool night air. The radio barked out a roll call and my name was missing and so was a firefighter from R1. A chief came around the corner, gave me a hug and told me who was missing.
My heart sank.
We were missing firefighter Ed Gaicki, one of my guys. A crew was making a push into the building with a 2 1/2 through the back door in an attempt to rescue Ed. I stopped them; the fire had the entire building, no one could survive the assault.
Later, with the assistance of the Phoenix Fire Department the fire was suppressed and we discovered the body of our friend and brother near the point of initial attack. They treated his body with great respect, taped off the area, and denied entry to all, except me. No one tried to stop me so I went back in the building.
I had to see him, to touch him, to say goodbye, I still don’t know…
I walked in and I saw his body lying on the floor, I touched his arm, said goodbye and leaned against the wall. I saw my friend there, but it wasn’t him. It was just the evidence of a life lived. I thanked God for saving so many but I asked, ‘Why couldn’t He have saved Ed?’ I knew in my heart that Ed was in heaven.”
Ed Gaicki, 27, a six-year member of the Tempe Fire Department, was killed when a roof collapsed on him and other firefighters during a massive 4 alarm blaze inside the Jumbo Bakery and Deli. Gaicki, a trained paramedic, had been nominated for the Tempe Jaycee’s annual Outstanding Firefighter award just five days before his death. Gaicki was survived in death by his wife Debbie, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Gaicki, his sister Vicky and brother Daniel.
“Ed’s passing left a void that can never be filled.”
|A plaque in Gaicki Park honors the sacrifice offered by Ed Gaicki.
|I have been pondering Gary Ells’ story of survival and the loss of Ed Gaicki for some time. The conversation that Gary and I had at the taqueria took place in 2010. I was affected deeply by the story and I felt that it had to be told. These stories have to be told because they explain who these survivors are, and more importantly, who they have become as a result of tragedy. These stories answer the burning question, “What is that guys deal?” Stories such as these explain their fire.
A good many people are repulsed by the dedication that some of us display. Our passion for the job often times comes from tragedy; it comes from nightmares. I find that a lot of these men and women – these sages – that I am fortunate enough to come across and hear their stories all have some type of watershed moment in their careers that forever changes them.
What was that moment? How do I avoid that moment in my career?
Our passion comes from their stories. It starts by listening with our hearts.
All of us who share the same ambition in the fire service – to lead the profession forward – feel that we have a fire that burns inside of us that keeps us going, always reaching for a higher standard. We want the same fire that these people – the survivors – possess. What we learn quickly though if we listen, is we only want the vicarious experience of what sparked the fire. The fuel that feeds their fire is the stuff of nightmares, and that terror is something that they deal with everyday.
Their minds are home to an endless box parade that haunts their existence. The books of memories contained in these boxes are cast aside until something disturbs them. Their minds rifle through a well worn paper-back, its pages yellowed and curled, some are missing, the print smudged, but one page is intact and the words are clear and bold.
Screams torment them, as does the memory of the ride back to the fire house with one empty seat. Putting away their friend and brother’s bedroll. Closing their friend’s locker for the last time. Saying, “I’m sorry,” to the family. Replaying the event over and over again in their mind thinking, “If I had only done thisthen things would be different.”
|Maybe I can cheat Death if I learn enough.
Photo by author.
Some mask the pain by shutting
down, others find refuge at the bottom of a bottle, and some find the only answer is to eat a bullet. Still others find that they must purge the hurt into a life devoted to preventing tragedy from ever happening again. It is a game they know they will never win, yet they try. They can’t retrieve the lost but they try like hell to prevent anyone else from the experiencing their hurt. Redemption is found in speaking their truth.
Can I ever be the type of man – the type of leader – that Gary Ells is? Do I possess that type of strength? Can I capture that fire?
I don’t know.
I don’t know if I could live with the pain. Eventually the echo becomes distant, but it never fades entirely. I don’t know for sure which way I would go. None of us can say for certain which way we would fall until we are at the crossroads. I hope I never have to make that choice.
What do I know?
We need to hear the stories of the survivors.
I know that hearing stories from survivors and learning about the fallen, like Ed Gaicki, establishes emotional bookmarks in me. I know that I am better and safer for those bookmarks and I just might survive the unfortunate happenstance I tumble into given the trajectory of my life and that maybe, just maybe, I can cheat Death if I learn enough.
“I thought I knew what a broken heart felt like. Now I know for certain.”
The seekers in the fire service want the fire; we crave the passion. What we don’t want is the catalyst, for that spark is the kind of thing that wakes you in the night and you feel as though you’re in free-fall, spiraling toward that terrible moment when your world forever changed, those nights when you burst from sleep in a sweat, breathing like you’re running though you lay still. You reach for your loved one, and when you’re satisfied that you are safe in your bed you attempt to calm yourself. You are safe only in the physical sense; you can’t run from the demons in your head, they’ll be there lurking when you come back. Sleep won’t come readily so you get up and stare into the night – awake with the vampires – remembering.
We feel that the harder we push, the farther away the demons will stay.
Broken hearts fuel these great men and women. Their goal is to give every firefighter they meet the tools necessary to survive. To a very real extent, their stories fuel us too. We take each line of duty death personally as we strive to protect those around us by spreading the gospel of what we have learned and experienced.
Their stories become our stories. Our fire is fed by a love for our brothers and sisters. They are why we listen, they are why we learn, they are why we teach, and they are why we work the craft so hard. We feel that the harder we push, the farther away the demons will stay.
Blackjack said to me, “Ed’s passing left a void that can never be filled. I thought I knew what a broken heart felt like. Now I know for certain.”