Floor Collapse: A Survivor’s Story (Fire Engineering)

by Mark vonAppen

On July 25, 2010, Captain Michael Long, a member of the Camp Taylor (KY) Fire Protection District, was plunged into the burning basement of a single- family dwelling during a four-alarm fire. As he struggled to survive against the fire, his brother-in-law, Deputy Chief Steve Adkins, helped to coordinate his rescue. Long’s wife Jeri, an EMT with Louisville Metro EMS, had just departed the fire scene with another injured firefighter en route to University of Louisville Trauma Center when her husband’s Mayday was reported.

THE INCIDENT

Long put on his mask and crawled inside the house, following the hoseline. He traveled about eight or nine feet when he ran into the backside of a firefighter. The firefighter sensed Long’s presence and turned toward him, extending an arm blindly into the smoke in Long’s direction.
“You guys need to back out,” Long said. He slapped the firefighter twice on the shoulder as he spoke. Just inside the door, the visibility was only inches—if you did not touch the person you were talking to, the message did not get delivered. You might as well be talking to yourself.
Long asked, “OK?”
The faceless firefighter answered in the affirmative and passed the message up the line to the other two firefighters who were indistinguishable in the smoke. Long reemerged from the smoke and awaited the exit of the three firefighters. They exited one at a time on their hands and knees and stood up slowly as they reclaimed their vision from the blinding smoke.
Long and his crew performed a final check of their equipment and readied themselves for entry. Long took the hoseline; crouching, he slammed his ax down on the floor (made of conventional or “legacy” wood members) to determine its ability to support his weight and disappeared, crawling through the front door into the smoke alone.
When Long and his crew arrived, firefighters at the scene were battling an advanced, stubborn basement fire that exhibited no sign of slowing, and they had been going at it awhile. The fire had been burning for almost an hour; it was getting progressively stronger as the firefighters tried in vain to combat it. Complicating matters further was that it was reported that the stairs to the basement had been destroyed by flames (after the fire was extinguished, the stairs were discovered to be intact), so the firefighters could not apply water directly to the fire. The fire had spread through the exterior walls and was starting to get into the attic space. It was slowly attacking the house’s structural integrity from within. Outwardly, there was no forewarning of collapse.
Weather conditions were not helping either. It isn’t unusual for summer evening temperatures in Kentucky to be in the mid-90s with equal or greater humidity. This night, the heat was particularly oppressive; the heat index was 110°F. The air was syrupy, and there was no reprieve from the wet heat that hung heavily on the body. Such weather conditions add an additional level of strain to firefighters battling a fire in bulky structural firefighting gear; they can be deadly, causing heart attacks, heat exhaustion, and stroke. In such conditions, everything is more difficult; firefighters become inattentive, clumsy, and mistake prone. Muscle movements are unsteady and unreliable; fatigue quickly arrives, and accidents often aren’t far behind.
The plan was for Long to lead the crew in with a 1¾-inch hoseline for protection, cut a hole in the floor, drop a 2½-inch hoseline with a cellar nozzle in the hole, and put out the fire. Plans are a trick of the mind—an attempt to control the future. They are formed in the same part of the brain as memories, blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy. Accidents occur near the boundary of reality and our projections of the future—like floor collapses. The problem occurs when reality doesn’t play along with the story you create for yourself.
Long convinced himself that this was the best plan and that it would work. He had been in situations worse than this, and everything worked out just fine. Throughout their careers, Adkins and Long had normalized risk. There was no reason to believe that the plan would not work.
He continued across the fire-weakened floor with the hoseline in one hand and his ax in the other.
A gnawing doubt persisted inside him. He continued to pound the floor with his ax. The floor felt stable. Long knew as soon as he felt it in his gut that something was terribly wrong. The floor he was crawling on, blindly, settled suddenly. The floor is collapsing, he realized.
He thought he would have enough time, maybe two to three seconds, to retreat the six feet following the 1¾-inch hoseline to the protection of the front porch. In reality, he had much less time than that. The floor bowed beneath him, dropping slightly, perhaps only inches, enough for Long, now the only one inside the house, to perceive it. In an instant, the floor below him, in fact the entire first floor, buckled. There was no sound, no warning.
A moment of weightlessness followed, similar to the time when you were a child hanging from a tree branch that snapped. You seemed to hang there weightless until gravity took effect and then came the sensation of falling. The body’s natural reaction when falling is to reach out in an attempt to stop the motion. It is instinct. The attempt to reach out and stop the downward plunge caused Long to lose his grip on the hoseline. He disappeared into the basement that was fully engulfed in flame.

In the Basement

He hit the ground feet first and fell forward to his knees. Immediately, he was met by the sense that thousands of bees were stinging him over his whole body. Then it got worse. It is like placing your hand in the center of the red-hot embers of an uncontrolled bonfire—only it is your entire body. Instinct dictates that you immediately withdraw from the painful stimulus. When you touch something extremely hot, instinct commands that you instantly let go of whatever it is. But Long could not remove his hand from the coals. He was the hand, and the embers were the fire that surrounded. There is no sanctuary to draw back to. It’s a pain you’ve never felt. You’re burning alive.
His body reacted violently to the agonizing stimulus. Long thrashed wildly as he tried to break away from this unbearable, ultra-hostile environment. His natural reaction only made things worse. The more he flailed about, the more air he used, and the more air he used, the more his fear grew. Long exceeded the output capacity of the regulator on his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which could not match the rate at which his panicked body was using air. The lack of adequate air flow caused a vacuum in his mask, causing it to pull inward toward his face with each deep, frantic gasp. Long was outbreathing his mask. As he did so, his panic compounded.
Time slowed as Long became acutely aware of his surroundings.
There is a lot of fire around me, he thought. At this time of intense struggle, Long was able to see the wonder of his environment, accept his dire situation, and begin to plan. I need to find the stairs, but then he remembered that the stairs were burned out.
If I wander too far from where I am, they’ll never be able to find me, he reasoned.
Long decided to stay where he was and wait it out. He could hear anxious voices above him, but he could not understand what they were saying. The firefighters’ voices were distorted by their masks; they sounded as though they were speaking into tin cans connected by strings. The sound of frantic voices above him offered a tiny bit of reassurance: His crew was above him and was doing everything in their ability to retrieve him.
Long willed himself to stay where he was even though he was burning alive. It was his last best option, his best chance of survival. Long began to realize how insignificant his life had become in this strange, new world. His existence had been reduced to a few square feet of hell.

OUTSIDE: DEPUTY CHIEF STEVE ADKINS

Long had just disappeared into the smoke when the collapse happened. The snap of timbers was the first sound Adkins heard. It was followed quickly by a rumble as the first floor and its contents spilled into the basement. Garbage trucks make a comparable sound at the moment the trash container they are lifting with their powerful hydraulic arms tips its load, sending it cascading downward—the sound of a fully burdened trash container and all of its various contents rolling into the collection bin in the back of the truck. It was an instant of cacophony followed by the almost passive crackling of timbers as the flames drew moisture from within the wood. The thick smoke that extended from the sill to the top of the front door and rose lazily from the eaves above them was sucked rapidly inward as if the basement fire were drawing in a massive breath of air. It was.
The smoke drew backward momentarily and then was at once belched outward. Pressurized smoke, burning embers, and ash burst forth furiously from the narrow opening. The pressure buildup from 3,500 square feet of explosively blazing materials was seeking the path of least resistance—now a 36- × 90-inch opening, the front door through which Long had entered. From his position on the front stoop, Adkins was out of the smoke and out of visual contact with Long. The muddy-brown turbulent smoke swirled about and occasionally gave way to flames.
With smoke and fire conditions as they were, there was no way to immediately determine what had fallen or how catastrophic the collapse was. The smoke cleared momentarily, and Adkins could see the undulation of flames where once the floor had been. It took some time for his mind to make sense of what his eyes were seeing, as it sometimes does when we see something that is incomprehensible.
Adkins and the remaining members of Quint 5051 quickly pulled the 1¾-inch hoseline back toward them in an effort to reel Long in from the danger. The nozzle at the forward end of the hose marked the end of the line. Long wasn’t there. The first floor was gone, and Long with it.
Hold on, Long! Adkins shouted into the doorway. The thick smoke and fingers of flame within seemed to deaden the sound. It seemed to go nowhere. Adkins lurched forward, sprawling on his belly, so he would not get dragged in, too. He extended an arm into the flames, groping desperately for Long. As he peered into the vortex before him, he could at times make out some familiar sights—an arm would appear, the common shape of an SCBA cylinder, a helmet.
Occasionally, he saw the reflective trim on Long’s helmet and turnout gear. Long appeared to rise up through the flames and then disappear again as if dropping into the troughs between waves of smoke and fire. Long surged upward through the flames and then faltered. Moments later, there would be another upward surge, followed by another—each time, the heave was weaker and the interval greater. Adkins could reach in only for seconds at a time; his protective gear could insulate his body only for so long before he finally became saturated with heat. Adkins reluctantly withdrew his arm each time the bees began to sting. Long’s helmet flashed through the flames one last time and then disappeared. Adkins could not reach him, and he was only precious feet away. Adkins reached in again and called out to his fallen brother, “Long…!”
Adkins grimaced and recoiled his arm in pain. He rubbed his left arm with a gloved hand in an attempt to brush away the stinging sensation. The arm of his turnout coat was smoking; its yellow reflective trim had wrinkled and was now brown from the heat. One of the other firefighters nudged past Adkins and directed the hoseline into the fire in an attempt to protect Long. He, too, sprawled on his belly; he frantically spun the nozzle around in a circular motion to provide a safe haven for his captain. The intensity of the fire turned most of the water to steam, doing little as far as cooling was concerned. His efforts were only somewhat helpful.
Adkins rolled to his back and looked desperately for a way to hoist Long from the hellhole. The rapid intervention team (RIT) members hustled up to the door with their gear, donning their masks, preparing to launch a rescue attempt. Seven firefighters now crowded near the front door, urgently trying to help.
Adkins stood up and stepped away from the melee at the front door. The RIT would take far too long. Long didn’t have that much time. There was way too much fire down there. Adkins surveyed the chaos around him and knew that he needed to bring things to order in a hurry if there was going to be any chance for rescue. His eyes fell on a ladder that was lying unused scant feet away on the front lawn. He pushed through the horde of firefighters and picked up the ladder.
“Move!” Adkins shouted as he positioned the ladder near the door. The mob before him parted, as Adkins plunged the ladder into the fiery abyss.
“Long! Grab the ladder!” Adkins shouted.

In the Basement: Long

Long was exhausted. He slumped to the floor against the front wall—at last, too tired to make another attempt to clamber out.
So this is how it happens, he was thinking. As he lay there on the basement floor, other thoughts came to mind. Long began to reason that his sacrifice had actually saved three others. Three firefighters were inside only minutes before he fell. Long had ordered them out. He alone was inside when the floor fell out from beneath him. If anything encouraging was to come from his death, it would be that one firefighter—not three firefighters—died in the basement.
Stay here, he reminded himself. The muffled shouts above him were growing distant. What were they saying?
The air he was breathing through his mask was becoming hotter, making each breath an effort, and the rubber of his face piece was getting all too malleable. Long knew the temperature of his immediate world was rising beyond the tolerance of his protective gear and that his face piece was the weakest part of all—perhaps a cruel flaw in the design of his protective ensemble, or maybe a merciful design. If his mask failed first, exposing his fragile airway, death would come promptly.
A speedy demise would certainly be a welcome reprieve from the all-out assault on his every superficial nerve.This is it. I am going to die here. He was going to die in the basement of this house, a house that was beyond saving. How did it come to this?
The clanking sound of a metallic object striking the fiberglass-wrapped air bottle on his back only marginally peaked his interest. Is more debris falling?The pain was beginning to subside.
Then, there was an instant of clarity. He distinctly heard the word “Ladder!” shouted from above. The ladder had Long pinned between it and the wall. Long reached behind him with a free hand and could feel the familiar vertical beams and horizontal rungs of the ladder. It was definitely a ladder. He had to find the strength to move out from under the ladder and then to climb it. The fire had taken a tremendous physical toll on him; he had little fight left.
He slid his hands up the beams and then to the rungs. He made it up on one knee and pulled himself to his feet. Wilting against the ladder, he managed to get a foot up on the bottom rung. It seemed to take forever. He pulled himself up again; his foot was on the second rung.
Keep going. Breathe. He lifted his foot again in an effort to gain the third rung. He managed to get only the tip of his boot on the rung. His foot slipped as he put weight on the foot. He fell face first onto the ladder and then tumbled backward to the basement floor, again into the fire.
This is it. I am dead for sure now. It was all I could do to climb three rungs. Now, I am right back where I started.And still, he burned.
It would be too easy to lie there and die. Long could not subject his family to this. His survival was no longer about himself. It was about his family. He couldn’t leave them—not now, not this way. Long endeavored again to stave off death. I will climb the ladder again. This time, I will not be denied. I will live to see my family again.
Long thought of Jeri, his wife, and their three boys. He again thought of Adkins, his brother-in-law, who was above him watching as he struggled for life against the inferno. Adkins was going to watch as he died. Adkins would have to tell his little sister that he watched as her husband, father of her three beloved boys, burned to death. This defied Long’s imagination. How would he explain it to Jeri? How would the boys take it?
Long attempted to climb the ladder again. He stumbled over the first hurdle. He gathered strength and resolve once again and began to climb. This time is much more difficult than the first, if that is possible. Long’s mask continued to cave inward as he gasped for air. The air he so desperately needed was now becoming unbearably hot, causing him to choke on each breath as his body protested the inspiration of heated air.
Long reached the fourth rung and felt gloved hands pawing at him. Two firefighters grasped the shoulder straps of his SCBA and pulled him violently from the pit of fire. Long was quickly dragged down the front steps of the house and onto the front lawn. He couldn’t see anything even though he was free from the smoke. His mask had been rendered completely opaque with carbon and soot. He was too exhausted to move. He felt as though he were being yanked back and forth in a tug of war where he was the rope as his rescuers removed his damaged gear from his body.

Long’s gear was so hot that the firefighters had to wear gloves as they removed each piece of equipment. Parts of his gear were actually on fire and had to be extinguished with a garden hose before he could be treated for his injuries.

Long sustained second- and third-degree burns to his hands and legs and was transported to the University of Louisville Trauma Center for treatment of his injuries.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

(In the words of Captain Long)

  • Train as if it is real. Train, train, train, and then train some more. Take advantage of every opportunity to train. The better we are trained, the less our chance of injury. The training must be physically and mentally. Crews must focus on more hands-on scenario-based training that allows for problem solving. If crews are taught that the outcome to every scenario is static, they are not being encouraged to think. Every run is different; no single solution applies to every situation. Adaptations or decisions that are not in step with changing conditions can actually be disadvantageous. We must make the right decisions based on the correct interpretation of the environment and blend those observations with our knowledge, skills, and abilities to map a course of action that will lead us to a successful outcome. Read reality and come up with the best possible plan. In my situation, quick thinking and adapting to the problem that presented itself saved my life.
  • Mutual-aid training is a must. We must train more with our neighboring departments to improve operations. It is occasionally difficult to work in situations where you do not really know with whom you will be working or where the command structure and tactics differ from those of your department. We all learn from the same book; however, the interpretations and tactics differ from person to person and department to department. I am not saying anyone is right or wrong in the way they do things—we all just need to do a better job of understanding that there is more than one way to get the job done.
    We cannot know exactly how everyone on an emergency scene will perform because each person has a different interpretation of his surroundings and role in the system. Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) can assist in this area, but SOGs rely on perceptions and interpretations by individuals to be implemented as intended. Accidents often happen because everyone has a unique perspective on the environment, and each makes different decisions based on their perception.
    We must perceive the environment correctly to ensure we make the right move. If these actions are not communicated and coordinated in the intricate system that is the fireground, accidents will be the inevitable and regrettable results. Training and frequent reviewing of SOGs are vital to our safety.
  • Risk assessment. Sounding the floor prior to entry is not always a good indicator of the floor’s stability. Less than two minutes before I made entry, there were three other firefighters, at least the same weight as I, in the same area where the collapse occurred. Everything changed in a very short time. There was no warning. Adkins told me at the hospital that all he heard was a “whoosh” sound when the floor collapsed. Then I disappeared. Within two minutes, the floor assembly went from being able to sustain a live load of at least 900 pounds in that area (accounting for gear, equipment, SCBA, and so on) to collapsing with about a 300-pound load, and I was close to a load-bearing wall. A good way to evaluate risk vs. gain is to get the most accurate report on burn time as possible to help determine structural integrity.
  • Rapid intervention. RIT is a critical fireground benchmark and is very important for safety, but it would have been ineffective in this situation. Had my crew not reacted the way they did immediately, I would not have been able to last long enough to wait for the RIT. In the time it would have taken for the RIT to gear up, come up with a plan, and enter, I would have died. The stars aligned in my favor that night. The person calling the Mayday or a nearby crew often mitigates personnel emergencies. My crew was able to act decisively at the correct time, and I am alive because of it. It is important to remember that a large percentage of Maydays are mitigated by the crew to which the lost firefighter is assigned or a nearby crew. RIT deployments account for a small number of rescues; we must always be alert and ready for the “incident within the incident.”
  • Manage your emotional response. From a personal standpoint, you must rely on your training and try not to panic. Know your equipment and procedures well. I did panic, but I was still able to keep myself together enough to know not to leave the area since I had been told that the stairs had burned away. Keeping my SCBA on, resisting the emotional reaction to remove my mask because of claustrophobia, was a huge factor in my survival. If I had tried to find another way out, my crew could not have gotten to me with the ladder. Had I removed my mask, the story would have ended quite differently. When I teach, I try to train as if it is the real thing. Never take a run for granted. Always expect the worst; you will be better prepared to deal with the unexpected.
    If we continually study accident reports and learn from them, the likelihood of being surprised will be diminished. Peter Leschak writes in Ghosts of the Fireground: ”In fire and other emergency operations, you must not only tolerate uncertainty; you must savor it, or you won’t last long. The most efficient preparation is a general mental, physical, and professional readiness nurtured over years of training and experience. You live to live. Preparing is itself an activity, and action is preparation.”
  • Talk about it. Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is important for ensuring that personnel from all departments on scene are taken care of emotionally. CISD needs to extend beyond just one or two briefings. Personnel involved in a highly emotional event must be given the opportunity to speak to a trained CISD team member early and be given as much time as is needed to work through their issue. Some firefighters have a macho attitude and try to deal with their emotions on their own, or maybe they don’t deal with them at all. Others self-medicate with alcohol or, worse, these difficult emotional events are allowed to fester with no relief. People should be accepting of those who deal with issues up front and tell their stories. Telling these stories makes us better and helps to keep us safe. This reduces the possibility of “snapping” because you have too much pent-up emotion.
    My fellow firefighters are still affected by this event, even those who were not there. Department personnel must be open-minded and receptive to the fact that emotional events will affect your performance and your personal life and that it is acceptable to be open and deal with them. When difficult emotional situations present themselves, members should attempt to deal with them as soon as possible.
  • Know what is possible and what is not. Know the experience level of your crew. Going into a bad situation with a crew that may not have exposure to a lot of different situations or that you aren’t that familiar with could make operations more difficult. I had everything from a 30-year veteran to a one-year recruit, so the experience level was all across the board. I knew that the situation we were going into was getting worse and required quick action, so I took the lead to ensure that the operation would be completed as quickly as possible. I knew my deputy chief would be watching us to ensure things were proceeding safely. I knew my crew could get the job done; however, this was an operation that is not often practiced and I wanted to make sure it was done correctly. I will not send my crew into an area that I am not comfortable going into. The more you train and the more people you can train with, the better you will understand your capabilities.
    Another survivor, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York City in January 2009, says the following about knowing your limitations: “You can’t be a wishful thinker. You have to know what you know and what you don’t know, what you can do and what you can’t do. You have to know (what you and your crew) can and can’t do in every possible situation.”

THE COMEBACK

The near hit that occurred at Minuteman Court in Kentucky on July 25, 2010, was just the beginning of an extensive journey for Long. What followed were extensive and painful surgeries to repair the damage to the skin of his legs, physical therapy, and a difficult emotional journey back from his near-death experience.
These traumatic events often leave those who experience them with deep emotional scars and lingering doubts about their ability to perform their jobs capably. They can alter your life in dreadful and irrevocable ways.
Jeff Helvin, a captain from Sacramento, California, who was trapped by a flashover in 2008, says this about his emotional road back to the firehouse: “That fire ruined me. For a time, it ruined my confidence and shook me up about my ability to do my job. The road to emotional recovery was long and difficult. I speak about my experience with others often. As time has passed, it has gotten easier to deal with. Talking about it helps a lot.” (See “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters,” Fire Engineering, April 2010.)
Long and Helvin endured the same type of emotional passage on their comeback to the firehouse. Long’s second shift back was on Thanksgiving Day, 2010. The firehouse was overflowing with family, friends, and his fellow firefighters. Long had many reasons to be thankful that day. “Every day brings new challenges as I have come back to work. My family at home and my fire service family have been instrumental in my recovery both physically and emotionally. I couldn’t have done it without them. I am blessed to have been given a second chance.”
MARK von APPEN is a firefighter for the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department, where he is assigned to the Training Division and the ladder company. 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 academy instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, an instructor at the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

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