55th Way

A heavy morning mist hangs on East Market St. as Engine 11 slows and stops in front of Station 11, firefighter Charles Hakopian steps off the left side of the engine into the darkness and the dank early morning air. He slams the door behind him and walks into the squad bay out of the dark. The bay is empty except for Truck 11, Rescue 11 is on its way to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center on an emergency medical service (EMS) run. Engine and Rescue 11 had been running hard all day and the beating continued into the early morning hours- neither crew has seen their bunks for most of the night.

Engine 11 groans as the engineer presses the accelerator swinging the engine in an arc across East Market to get in position to back the rig into the bay. Charles takes his position on the right side of the bay next to the bright yellow line on the floor that was the landmark the engineer used to back the hulking apparatus into the station. 

Charles places the boot of the suction hose over the exhaust pipe of the engine and pushes the button to inflate the bladder. Seeing that the boot and hose are firmly in place he begins to roll his turnout pants down around his boots. The parking brake on the engine pops and hisses signaling that the engine has come to rest. He grasps the handrail on the side of the engine and removes his bunker boots and pants, the motor rumbles to a stop.

The bay door is still open and the cold, damp air has displaced the warmth of the squad bay. Even in Long Beach, California it can get chilly in December at 1 o’clock in the morning. Charles hustles over to the apparatus bay door in his tee shirt, shorts, and stocking feet- he pushes the close button on the automatic door. The door rattles, clicks, and squeaks as it’s many sections protest having been awakened at such a perverse hour of the morning. It crashes closed and the bay again becomes quiet. He and his fellow firefighter, Carsten Sorensen restock the medical gear to be ready for the next run.

The crew shuffles off to the dorm. They have a collective feeling that trying to get some rest was going to be futile- it seems as though it was going to be one of those nights. Charles collapses into his rack and quickly falls into an exhausted sleep.



Twenty minutes later, a few miles away the residents of an apartment complex are awakened by the piercing shriek of a smoke detector and shouts of “Fire!”
The phones in the Long Beach Fire Department dispatch center begin to ring.

Long Beach Fire Dispatch

Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department paramedics.

Indiscernible shouting from the caller can be heard.

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: Oh my God, the house is on fire. It’s a new born- a newborn!

Dispatcher: Which apartment is it?

Caller (shouting to another resident): What apartment number is it? Apartment number 9*…

Dispatcher: Apartment number 9?

Caller: Yes.

Dispatcher: Tell everyone to get out of the building. We’re on our way.

-Alert tones-

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.

*Callers erroneously identified the apartment as number 9. Subsequent callers correctly reported the apartment as number 5. The correct address was given to the units at the time of dispatch.


The dispatch

Ascending peals of electronic alarm tones echo throughout the station, fluorescent lights flicker awake. The clangor jolts the crew from their half slumber. Charles felt as though he had been asleep only minutes- he looks at the digital clock next to his bunk- it reads 0130. He rolls from warmth of his berth and starts for the squad bay.

The ethereal voice of a female dispatcher rings all through the station:

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.

Back to the squad bay, 10 firefighters pull on their bunker boots and pants, don their turnout coats in unison and then take their assigned seats on one of the 3 rigs in the bay. The bay doors for all three units assigned to Station 11- Engine 11, Rescue 11, and Truck 11- moan, screech, and rattle open once more.

In less than a minute all three rigs roar from their bays making a right on East Market Street and are en route to the apartment fire reported on East 55th Way. Engine 11 leads with its federal siren wailing as it makes off into the wet darkness. As the rigs disappear into the night, the dispatch center updates the responding units that they have received multiple calls confirming the fire- many of the callers report that there is someone trapped upstairs.

It is 2 miles from Station 11 to East 55th way- a mostly straight shot that the three units can cover in a hurry at that time of the morning as almost no one is on the road. The lights of fast food restaurants illuminate the corners of E. Market and Atlantic Avenue as the three units pass through the intersection. As they continue along E. Market leaving Orange Avenue behind, the lights of the business district fade as East Market turns residential. 


The apartment complex on 55th Way is at the outer edge of Station 11’s response area- it’s one of the longest runs they can make in their first-due district. Engine 11 makes the first of 2 left turns, its motor growling as the automatic transmission down shifts the engineer accelerating out of the turn- the first left is onto North Paramount Boulevard where a 24 hour convenience store dots the bend, then 3 blocks to another left on East 55th Way. The task force makes excellent time- the first due companies arrive in just under 3 and a half minutes. The public housing complex comes into view on the driver’s side of E11.

Engine 11 at the scene

Engine 11 slows and passes the apartment building to give the captain a three- sided view and leave room for the ladder truck. As the engine slows in preparation to stop Charles has one hand on the door handle, the other on the release for his seat belt and one foot in the step well. 


 The captain evaluates the building and transmits his size up on the tactical channel.
Engine 11 is on scene- 2- story garden style apartment building with light smoke showing from the second floor. We’ll be pulling a line.

Charles announces over the headset that he will pull the line because the fire building is on his side. This was not normally his assigned task- pulling the line and operating the nozzle was the job of the number 1 firefighter- Carsten, the number 1 firefighter sits behind the captain. Charles, riding in the number 3 position was responsible for wrapping the hydrant to establish a water supply, assisting with maneuvering the attack hose line and performing an initial search for fire victims. Engine 11 decides to “tank it” meaning the captain chose to work with water from the booster tank due to the report of a rescue- water supply would be passed to the second due engine.

The maxi brake pops and the apparatus bucks to a stop- Charles steps off the driver’s side of the engine and begins his mental size up of the structure; he notes lazy white smoke rising from a second story window and eaves. The smoke is not under pressure indicating that the fire has not yet gained momentum. He fastens the waist strap on his self- contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and readies himself to pull the hose line. “It looked like a nothing fire.” Hakopian said in an interview. “It looked like someone had left something cooking on the stove too long.”

There are a dozen or more people gathered in the courtyard.

Doesn’t look like much. Probably a pot on the stove…

A panic-stricken woman in a night- gown who shouts at Charles that there is a child trapped upstairs in the burning apartment interrupts his inner monologue.

She tugs at his arm and speaks with terror as she reports that a young boy was upstairs in the apartment. Charles tells the engineer to have Carsten pull the hose line- he was going in to start the search.

“Whenever it’s a kid it always kind of tugs at your heart strings little bit more.”

Okay, okay. We’ll get him.

The crowd of a dozen or so mills about in the courtyard as Charles hustles through the crush to the apartment door. They point to the second story window where sluggish gray- white smoke issues. In the wet night air smoke drapes the courtyard like a shroud, an acrid smell suspended within, a west wind stirs the smoke only a little.

The door to the apartment is open wide – the boy’s mother had returned home and opened the door, noticed smoke and began screaming hysterically. Later, residents of the complex had tried to rescue the little boy and were driven back by smoke and fire. Charles pauses at the entry point and peers through the open door, neither smoke nor fire is evident. He pushes inside and clears the first floor.

Inside

Seeing that the first floor is free from hazard Charles scans up stairs and notes languid, muddy smoke backing down the stairwell. The smoke has banked down close to waist level on the second floor.

He forges up the stairs taking care to stay low out of the smoke- Charles notices a marked change in heat conditions as he moves between atmospheres- from the cool of the first floor to the hellish surroundings of the second. He crests the stairs- visibility is clear beneath the smoke- Charles is able to chart the lay out of the second floor. He now can see fire emanating from two bedrooms.

Charles enters a state of hyper-focus as his adrenal gland dumps catecholamines into his system in response to the threat his body senses. Catecholamines are “fight or flight” hormones released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. These hormones- epinephrine, norepinepherine, and dopamine- cause an increase in heart rate, a corresponding increase in blood pressure, the pupils to dialate, and shunting of blood to the major muscle groups needed in a fight. The chemicals cause vision to narrow in order to focus on the danger, and hearing to become selective. Light still hits his retinas sending images to his brain and his ears still hear but his mind casts aside information that it regards irrelevant to the survival mission.

In this condition, Charles sees the environment with particular clarity and detail. Here the world has a weird, hushed tranquility- the top of the stairs is exceptionally quiet, the only sounds are the crack and pop of the fire while the contents of the apartment warp and twist as the fire devours them.

From his vantage point he can see fire undulating from both bedrooms across the ceiling into the hallway. The fire cascades mesmerizingly- resembling a luminous orange inverted waterfall, it is at once striking and also pitiless to that in its path. Its wicked allure belies a vicious nature. Charles is momentarily hypnotized by the fire’s brilliant display.

He can go no further- his advance cut off by the fire. At the top of the stairs Charles puts his SCBA mask on. Fastening his chin- strap he looks about for his captain and nozzle man- time is of the essence- he knows how quickly a fire left unchecked can progress. Charles clicks his mask- mounted regulator in place, takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, exhales slowly, and waits for his crew. He repeats the breathing procedure as he watches and waits. Charles employs this controlled breathing technique to slow his heart rate. Intuitively he recognizes that he must keep his emotions in check. A tiny snap of fear will give him an edge in this fight- too much will be counterproductive.

Breathe in, hold it, and let it out.

Though he couldn’t see his nozzle man before he sprinted up the stairs Charles knew Carsten would be only seconds after him. He is an efficient and capable firefighter- training and fighting fire together had proven this out. Charles would recon the second floor while visibility was still good and Carsten would be right behind him with the hose line to protect the search. Charles waits at the top stairs for what seems like an eternity. In reality it is only seconds, when Carsten enters the apartment through the front door. He sees Charles above him on the stairs motioning for him to pass the hose line up the stairs.

Carsten hands the line to Charles and withdraws to the first floor to put on his mask. Charles takes the hose and nozzle and aims it toward the ceiling that is awash with fire. Fire continues to flow like a molten torrent across the ceiling from the near bedroom and into the second- crouching low, Charles dispenses water from the adjustable nozzle in short, controlled bursts on a narrow stream setting. With each quick blast from the nozzle the fire recoils deeper into the first bedroom.

Charles is careful not to open the nozzle on a wide fog pattern as this will pressurize the fire compartment and upset the thermal balance, leading to temperatures at the floor level exceeding those at the ceiling for a short period of time- driving heat and fire gas brutally downward, all but eliminating the possibility of survival for anyone who may be trapped.
Fully opening the nozzle on a wide fog pattern would cause an instantaneous, volatile conversion of water into steam- the rapidly expanding steam cloud will effectively poach anyone without the benefit of structural turnout gear and SCBA. Conditions at floor level will 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 can keep it that way. Armed with this knowledge, Charles jabs at the fire and drives it back into its corner.

Floor Collapse

The heat and fire conditions permit Charles to advance in a low squat as he pushes toward the first bedroom- penciling the fire as he advances. As he enters the first bedroom his feet are cut from beneath him. His left foot penetrates the floor first- his body weight causes more of the floor to fail. He instinctively spreads out in an attempt to catch himself when his body recognizes it is falling. He extends his arms and legs outward as though he is a cat trying to avoid being immersed in a bucket of water. In an instant Charles falls through the floor up to his chest and is resting on his elbows. He concludes that he has two basic options, he can try to free himself by pushing up from the hole in the floor, or if the floor continues to crumble from beneath him as he fights he can plunge the remaining 4 feet and land in a heap on the first 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.”

As chance would have it Charles was in the right position when the small section of floor disintegrated beneath him. Had he been crawling head- first, instead of crouching- a fall of greater than 10 feet onto his head or back would have resulted in serious injury. Charles is able to look between his body and the floor joists and can see light coming from the first floor. “I knew something was wrong when I could see the first floor between my legs.” He kicks his legs and pushes himself up with his arms- his feet find a first floor wall and in seconds he is able to push and kick himself free of the hole.

Carsten clicks his regulator in place and is at the threshold as Charles springs from the hole.
Charles shouts to him from inside the bedroom.

Watch out- I just went through the floor.

Carsten has no idea what had just taken place- he was on the first floor putting on his mask when his partner crashed through the second floor. Charles was up and out of the hole before anyone could notice. Carsten is incredulous- he wasn’t sure whether Charles had simply fallen or was entangled in wires that had dropped from the ceiling.

What happened?

Carsten scans the floor with the Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) and can clearly see the hole in the floor between him and his partner. The camera displays the infrared spectrum that is invisible to the human eye- building an image based on heat. Through the eye of the TIC areas of heat are displayed as white and areas of cold are black- a gray scale is in between.


The camera creates an almost ghost-like image of the invisible light world that it can distinguish through its core-processing unit, allowing the firefighters to literally see through smoke. Carsten sees the black outline of a hole in the floor- it is a stark contrast to the floors structural members that show up as a white, radiant halo around the black opening.

“As I looked through the TIC I could clearly see the outline of the hole- it was still burning,” Sorensen said. He scans the bedroom from the hallway- beyond the hole he can see Charles near the bed as he rummages through the room, scouring it urgently for the little boy. “As I looked through the TIC I could see him in the bedroom. I didn’t see him go down. I could see the hose line down in the hole.” 


Charles completes his tactile search of the room satisfied that no one is inside. He exits the room and meets Carsten in the hallway.

Another firefighter now joins them in the passageway- a firefighter from Engine 12 (E12) has come up stairs to join the fray. He nudges past Charles and Carsten blasts the fire now seething from the second bedroom with the 1¾ hose line he carries. He utilizes the same suppression technique mentioned earlier to maintain the delicate thermal balance. Carsten holds at the first doorway with the TIC to monitor fire conditions, and protect the search- ensuring another firefighter does not go through the floor.

The fire in the second bedroom hisses disapprovingly and withdraws as the E12 firefighter prods it. Surprisingly, heat conditions in the hallway are tolerable- in a small space such as this heat development would normally be extremely rapid. The window had failed in the second bedroom- allowing for the release of heat, carrying it away from the firefighters and Justin. The combination of the open front door and the window shattering- allowing the heat to escape- contributed greatly to Justin’s chances of survival.

Rescue

Charles shoves past the E12 nozzle man who turns the hose line to the fire coming from the closet. He has only a moment to distinguish the room’s layout before the room goes black. The fire and water combination will produce a steam cloud that will rob the firefighters of their sight. 


A closet is to his right; a bed in the center of the room and a window is to his left. Charles crashes 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, his focus turns to the bed- he searches atop it- Charles finds the bed empty. He makes his way to the foot of the bed and continues his search on the bed’s left side- nearest the window. The smoke and steam lift momentarily- Charles looks down and his heart leaps as he sees the shape of a young child’s hand. The child is laying face down and motionless on the floor.

“It was kind of a blur,” Hakopian said. “It was very emotional.”

Charles scoops the boy into his arms- cradling him gently and pulling him close to his body in an effort to shield him from the heat. Heartbreakingly, the little boy does not stir when he is picked up. Charles can feel heat from the little boy through his thick firefighting gloves. Hakopian said in an interview, “I didn’t try to check for breathing or a pulse- I knew I just needed to get him to fresh air as fast as I could. He was hot to the touch- he had been in there cooking for a while. As I carried him out he didn’t move at all- I thought he was gone.”

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 rages 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 is overcome by smoke but is relatively unburned. Charles starts for the front door with the child in his arms. As he exits the bedroom he hears the Truck Company (T11) on the roof- the throaty snarl of their chainsaw operating at full rpm as the crew tears the roof open above his head.

“The bed was between him and the fire…the floor was hot but it was cooler than up on the bed so it was the best place for him to be,” Hakopian said.

Outside

Rescue 11 (R11) and Engine 9 (E9) are assigned to medical group and have their medical equipment and a gurney ready to accept the toddler as Charles rushes from the apartment. Charles hands Justin’s lifeless body to Joyce Vanderweide, a R11 paramedic. She places the child’s wilted body on the bed. Vanderweide and her partner, Mark Miller, immediately begin resuscitation efforts. Vanderweide said she and Miller were about to start CPR when she touched Justin’s chest and felt his heart was still beating. “The amazing thing,” said Vanderweide. “Justin was so hot when Charles handed him to us…he was much hotter than a 105- degree fever.”

The four firefighters from E9 descend upon the little boy’s body and support the resuscitation attempts. The medics follow a well- rehearsed script as they work to bring the little boy back to life. The emotion of the situation is not lost on any of the firefighters, now emotions must be cast aside if Justin was to have any chance.

Charles steps away from the melee surrounding the child and removes his helmet and mask. His hands shake as the catecholamine release surges through his body. The slamming of his heart fills his ears- his heart rate has soared into the 150’s. He feels clumsy as his body experiences the natural fight or flee response- fine motor skills have all but left him for the moment. He inhales profoundly as he tires to regain his breath and slow his heart rate. Charles watches for any sign of life from the little boy as the medics continue to treat the child according to protocol. The boy shows no signs of life – Charles feels heaviness in his chest as he observes the medics administering treatment. Hakopian said, “I thought we were too late. I didn’t think he would make it.”

Until now Charles 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. Charles couldn’t develop emotional attachments to the situation as it evolved, emotion would cloud his judgments- possibly causing him to hesitate at the moment of truth. Until now he had only thought about the rescue in detached terms- he was searching for a victim, not a little boy. That victim now had a face and the tiny features of a 2 year- old child. As the chemical release in his system is metabolized, catecholamines have a half-life of a few minutes when circulating in the blood, Charles senses the emotion of the circumstances- they begin to weigh on him. The little boy is not responding to treatment.

“It was kind of a blur,” Hakopian said. “It was very emotional.”

The crowd gathered in the courtyard is now kept at a distance by police officers. They had watched the entire event unfold before their eyes; some had even tried to rescue Justin before the arrival of the fire department. They were emotionally involved. They knew the little boy who played in the courtyard, his shouts and laughter filled it during the day as he played and rode his tri-cycle. The group had looked on helpless 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 alternating from hope to despair, then hope again as a firefighter emerged from the burning building with little Justin. The normal childhood effervescence that Justin displayed wasn’t there. He didn’t cry in fear or struggle with the medics the way a child his age should when scared out of his mind and longing for his mother. The little boy could not have looked worse. All vestiges of life have left him. Unified in concern, they each wear a look of anguish on their face as they collectively pray and try to will little Justin back to life.

The group of firefighters and paramedics that surround the gurney start as one toward the rescue. The gurney is loaded in the back- Miller and Vanderwiede accompany the little boy in the patient compartment, the back doors slam shut and the rig sets off for Long Beach Memorial with its precious cargo. R11 speeds into the night, its siren growing distant as it recedes into the night.

As R11 brings Justin to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller and Vanderwiede are able to start his breathing again.
Justin’s mother was arrested that night and charged with felony child abuse and neglect.
The 2-year-old 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. Justin was listed in critical condition upon his arrival at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. After a few days in critical condition he made what doctors called a “miraculous recovery.” Today, he is alive and well thanks to the strong work of the Long Beach Fire Department.
“If I could take one thing away from out training that was invaluable it is that we are always taught to think on our feet. We always hear in the Long Beach Fire Department , ‘We are not going to teach you to be robot,'” Hakopian said.
“Whenever it’s a kid it always kind of tugs at your heart strings little bit more,” said Vanderweide. “We really look forward to the positive results like we experienced with Justin. We were all lucky to be a part of it.”

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