It’s not hard to remember December in 1999.
That year, in the month of December alone, this nation’s fire service lost EIGHTEEN firefighters in the line of duty.
Two fires accounted for half of that total.
On December 3, 1999, Worcester Massachusetts lost six firefighters in the Cold Storage Warehouse fire. Thomas Spencer, Paul Brotherton, Timothy Jackson, Jeremiah (Jerry) Lucey, James Lyons and Joseph McGuirk all perished in a fire that started as “light smoke showing” and went to an out-of-control raging inferno very quickly. That day was memorialized in the book “3000 Degrees” by Sean Flynn.
Then, on December 22, 1999, the Keokuk Iowa Fire Department was decimated by the deaths of three of their firefighters, while operating at an apartment fire. Assistant Chief Dave McNally, Firefighter Nathan Tuck and Firefighter Jason Bitting died while attempting to rescue three, young children. It was determined that a flashover occurred that took the lives of the three firefighters and the three children that they were trying to save.
I believe that the lessons learned from this fire are important to future generations, because it is Middle America and occurred in a town with a population of about 13,000. The demographics of this community could mirror many across our nation.
At the time of this fatal fire, Keokuk was protected by a career department consisting of 18 firefighters and a chief. A shift was covered by 5-6 firefighters beginning at 7:00 am with a callback system and mutual aid.
After the fire and the funerals, Chief Mark Wessel became a very strong advocate for staffing issues, leadership and for having a plan in the event of a firefighter line-of-duty death. In fact; the second time that I met Mark, it was at the Tazewell County Fire School in East Peoria, IL were his class was “Preparing for an LODD”. We spoke quite a bit that day and that was when I knew that I wanted to interview him about the December 22, 1999 fire and its aftermath.
He graciously agreed to my interview and as you read, you will see that nothing was held back.
I am honored to know him and so very proud that he calls me “friend”. We have seen each other over the years and we always greet each other with a hearty hand-shake and a manhug.
Another of his close friends is none other than Chief Billy Goldfeder. I asked Billy to write the introduction to the interview.
Keep in mind that the interview was done in 2004, but it is timeless.
INTRODUCTION by Chief Billy Goldfeder:
Chief Mark Wessel is a fire chief like many of us-and like many of us, started off at the bottom rung and worked his way up. He has responded to numerous fires, rescues and related emergencies and has reacted like many of us-from the good to the bad-from the happy to the sad. And like many of us, has tried to do the best he can with what he has to work with-from the budgets to the equipment to the firefighters. Just another hard working fire chief in the USA.
Things changed drastically for Chief Wessel and the members of the Keokuk FD in 1999 when not only were 3 children lost in a fire-but 3 of his firefighters as well. The actual story can be found below. My comments are related from a more personal standpoint as far as the "before and after" of when bad stuff, real bad stuff happens.
So often in the fire service, we never learn. In some cases, even tragic events don't change the behaviors of a fire department....even when it happens to them! And that only makes the event more tragic. But in recent times, as horrible as some losses have been, there are some leaders that have tried hard all along-but when the bad occurs, have the guts and leadership to effect change-no matter what the barriers. One such excellent example of that is Chief Mark Wessel. Chief Wessel could have taken many "roads" following this tragic event but that's not the kind of person he is. It is clear to anyone, once they talk to him, that they will understand that he had the courage to MAKE THE CHANGES and will discuss and share what happened in Keokuk with firefighters anywhere so "that" does not happen to them. Kind of a "history repeating itself" prevention officer. He shares what they did wrong, what they did right and how ANY FD can learn from the horror that he and his firefighters went through. His message is clear-this kind of event does NOT have to happen to you and while yes-he has enacted some very radical changes, Mark's focus is what all of our’s should be everyday-that EVERY FIREFIGHTER RETURNS HOME AFTER EVERY ALARM.
It is a pleasure to introduce this interview with my friend and colleague, Chief Mark Wessel.
Btn. Chief Billy Goldfeder, E.F.O.
Author’s Note: I often write under the pen name “ChiefReason”. As such, “CR” is its shortened version.
CR: Chief; first of all, thank you for sharing your experiences of this tragic incident. It is a story that I feel needs to be told again and again. The fact that you have traveled this country recounting it is an extraordinary display of humility and strength of character on your part.
CW: Thank you, Chief. This is the only way I can think of that and possibly make something good come out of a very tragic event in our department.
CR: I have heard you speak on three occasions. The first time was at the memorial service on Sunday, December 26, 1999. The second time was at Tazewell County Fire School in East Peoria, IL in April of 2002 and just recently in New Windsor, Il on September 16th. And all three times, I sat in awe of your composure. Where do you find the emotional strength to relive that tragic day time after time?
CW: Actually, the only way I can describe where the strength comes from is through God and everyone’s prayers. That day was one of the most, if not the most horrible day of my life. The loss of our brothers has been horrible to say the least. The only way I can describe how I am able is simply this: I relive the day in my mind, everyday. I will never forget the horror for the families, the firefighters, the community, and myself. All I have left are opportunities to share the experience in hopes someone, somewhere, will be safer.
CR: You delivered not one, but three eulogies at the memorial service; all the while, looking at the faces of the families of the three, fallen firefighters. Was it surreal? Were you in a state of shock, denial; what?
How did you do it?
CW: To be quite honest, I remember being mostly numb. I felt so humbled and responsible that all I could think about was the fact that no matter what words were said, they were not adequate. The entire ordeal was so far above my ability to comprehend, I just existed through the service. Fortunately, there were so many people that assisted myself, and the department, so that things ran smoothly. I will never be able to express my gratitude enough to all those people.
CR: You did your program at Tazewell on “The Disaster Has Become Personal”. You described the preparation for the memorial, the funeral and arranging for the benefits for the firefighters’ families. You spoke of some battles that you fought during this time. I particularly remember one involving John Buckman, who, I believe, was president of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NFVC) at the time. Can you talk about that?
CW: Actually, Chief Buckman was representing the IAFC. Sometimes people lose perspective of why we were gathered that day. Politics sometimes supersedes common sense. Fortunately, it was not a local issue, but more of a national issue as to who would be allowed to sit on the stage (how many union representatives vs. non-union representatives). Chief Buckman was not the problem. I was able to mitigate the problem and move forward with the program as planned. I would like to clarify that I certainly appreciate Chief Buckman traveling to Keokuk to represent the IAFC. That was the first time I had met Chief Buckman, and all I can say is he has been there for my department and me. I believe we have developed a very good friendship over the past 5 years.
CR: Tell us about the public’s reaction to the overwhelming presence of all of the firefighters at the memorial service.
CW: I believe the general public viewed first hand what we mean when we speak of the brotherhood. The interesting part of the brotherhood in this part of the country is, whether you are paid or volunteer, you belong. Although the Keokuk Fire Department is all career, and has been for 125 years, when we require assistance, it’s the volunteers that we call on. I so much appreciate their help for that time and since.
CR: Governor Tom Vilsack was in attendance. Were you given any private time with him and can you share with us what was said?
CW: There really wasn’t much time. The Governor traveled here that day, spoke some words of regret and encouragement then returned to Des Moines just after the service.
CR: Assistant Chief Dave McNally and you had a relationship before the two of you joined the fire department. Please tell us about your friend.
CW: Dave and I knew each other before we were ever hired onto the department. We weren’t what you would call running buddies, but occasionally would hang out together. Dave and I were hired about a year apart. He more senior to me. I guess to give a perspective of how our careers evolved, I’ll give a quick and dirty. Mid 70’s; both firefighters. Early ’81, Dave became a Lieutenant and I was a firefighter on his shift. In 1983, I became a Lieutenant and we were on different shifts. In 1988, I was promoted to Assistant Chief. Dave was my Lt. In 1995, Dave was appointed Assistant Chief. In 1997, I was appointed Chief. Dave was the best. I would have followed him anywhere.
CR: Nathan Tuck was 39 years old at the time, but had only been on the department 4-1/2 years. Did his desire to join come from his other community involvements?
CW: I think Nate was all about helping. It really didn’t matter what he was doing, just so he could help someone. High school kids seemed to be his passion. His personality was just right for them. Nate was so compassionate. Always encouraging. That can be an allusive trait to find today.
CR: When I see pictures of Jason Bitting, I see youthful exuberance and eyes full of promise. Tell us about Jason.
CW: Jason is kind of hard for me. I think because of the age difference. A big teddy bear! So strong, so willing, so intelligent, yet still remaining naïve enough to have a burning desire to live and to learn. Jason was the kind of person you had to love.
Actually, all three of the guys were so special. I was able to fill the vacant positions, but could never replace those three special firefighters.
CR: Let’s talk about the NIOSH report and especially, the recommendations. Staffing was an issue. It is obvious that your resources were stretched by the MVA and then the report of the residential fire. Is it safe to say that your initial response to the fire was a quint, engine and four personnel. Was this SOP?
CW: Yes; that was the initial response. Whenever you have a total shift of 6 personnel, a 5 man minimum and answer 850 to 900 calls for service a year, you are going to have times when you respond to an emergency with 3, 4, or 5 personnel on the initial response. This is what we learned: It’s not how many you respond with, it’s what you do with them when you arrive. If you lose perspective of the whole picture, it doesn’t matter how many you have.
CR: What do you believe NIOSH considered an appropriate staffing level for a city like Keokuk?
CW: I think this will also better explain the previous question. I don’t think NIOSH actually stated how many personnel would be an appropriate staffing level for a community like Keokuk. If you were to take into consideration NFPA and all of the evolutions that need to be accomplished, I would think that number would be somewhere between 13 and 16 personnel. Now; that would be for a single-family dwelling. Next; take into consideration the age and condition of the community. How about all of the commercial structures in the community? And, the industrial basis that Keokuk serves? I guess one might easily estimate the need for 24 to 30 personnel on duty ready to respond. But, the $700 question. How do we pay for it? We don’t. We make due with what we can afford. With that comes responsibility to formulate SOP’s that can be affected safely. If you can’t do that, then stand back and become defensive in your attack of the emergency. It’s much easier to stand in front of the media and say we had to let it burn because we did not have the resources to use a reasonable amount of safety to protect the firefighters than it is to conduct a memorial service. It’s much easier to look at a reporter with rubble in the background than to look into the faces of the grieving family of a firefighter. That I can say with certainty, and anyone reading this should take it to the bank.
CR: The report recommended that the IC does initial size-up before initiating firefighting efforts and then continually evaluating risk versus gain as the incident continues. AC McNally was the highest rank initially. Wouldn’t he have done a size-up before starting search-and-rescue? And would you not take command once on scene under “normal” circumstances?
CW: Under normal circumstances, yes. TUNNEL VISION played a huge role in the way that fire was approached. Mother, with a 4 year old in hand, screaming, “MY BABIES ARE INSIDE” was key to the deviation from normal operations. I believe being keyed up from the MVA that morning just prior to the call-in fact they were called off of that incident to this one-played a part in the initial operation. Having no medical transport available played a key role. One might say that this fire was routine. ROUTINE is no longer a word in our vocabulary. Other than pulling into the fire scene and seeing smoke from a residential structure, there was nothing else routine about it. There was nothing normal about that day.
CR: Do you think too much emphasis or not enough is put on an ICS? What would it have done for you on this day? You had to get the kids out. In retrospect, break the incident down to what might have been done differently.
CW: I truly feel ICS is the most important aspect of firefighter safety we can have on the emergency scene. Good command should reflect control, coordination, goals and communication. I guess I could beat myself up indefinitely over the operation. Some may even say I should. Trust me; I have. Through this I have gained nothing. What has been most effective is dissecting the incident into pieces small enough to calculate. Also, dissecting the department so that the task is not so overwhelming in the development of good SOP’s, SOG’s.
CR: “Defensive search” was mentioned. I don’t mind telling you that it put a silly look on my face. The only thing that I could think that it meant was to take a long stick and poke it through a window and maybe someone would grab it. How close am I?
CW: Actually Chief, you’re not to far off. What defensive search actually refers to is the idea of not over committing. Do not place yourself in a position that you might become part of the problem. I know we train to rescue people. I know we all have learned the right hand rule and left hand rule on primary search and rescue. Let me just say this: If you have firefighters who have not had this training, they should not be your rescue team. If you are a firefighter who has not had this training, then you should refuse to perform interior search and rescue. I was teaching a basic breathing apparatus class and was asked the question about CEU’s for HAZMAT Tech. I asked if the student was a Tech and he replied “yes”. This particular student had never worn breathing apparatus. Maybe over the years things have changed that much, but I always thought you needed to wear breathing apparatus to train to the HAZMAT Tech level. Don’t put yourself or your people in an over committed environment. When and if other resources arrive, then and only then might you consider further commitment? Stay next to a door or window to do your search. Do not commit further than your resources or training allow for a reasonable amount of safety.
CR: “maintains close accountability for all personnel at the fire scene”. This would suggest that you didn’t know where your FIVE people were, when it is painfully clear that you knew exactly where they were and what they were doing. Was this meant to address communications issues? Who had radios that day?
CW: I did in fact know that they were performing rescue operations on the interior of the structure. When you have this few personnel on the scene, you can track everyone without too many problems. As the incident grows, you must then utilize a formal accountability system to track all the operations that are simultaneously occurring. Having a good accountability of your personnel will help to stabilize a scene, reduce freelancing and provide a safer more proficient operation. Having an established accountability program will reduce the impact of Murphy’s Law.
CR: NIOSH addressed communications. Were there difficulties with radio transmissions, radio equipment, and no back-up channels? What caused your radios to be a focus for their review?
CW: At the time of this fire, only the officers had portable radios. Today, all personnel carry radios. There was very little communications occurring at the scene that morning. In fact, it would be reasonable to say little or none, except for initial communications with dispatch. I think NIOSH focused on this mainly because communications seems to be a common denominator in LODD’s. It would seem to me that whenever a team is focused on search for a known victim, the radio’s become very quiet. We have worked on our communications quite a lot. We continue to have a long way to go. With radio communications there is always room for improvement. I think for me the lesson in emergency scene communications was not what was communicated but more of what was not communicated.
CR: RIT is a biggie. A lot of discussion over the years. At what point in this incident did you actually have enough manpower to assign RIT? And honestly? Knowing Iowa OSHA like I do, I would have bet on a citation for violating two in/two out. Was RIT part of the equation early into this incident?
CW: No, RIT really wasn’t a consideration. Actually the 2 in 2 out rule is negated in Iowa if a known rescue is in progress. 2 in 2 out never played a role in any of the investigation. My only observation towards 2 in 2 out is; Why is it OK in OSHA’s eyes to perform a rescue with only one person if you know someone is trapped than it is if you are assuming someone may be trapped? I thought OSHA was about employee safety. If that is the case, even they make an exception to the rules (SOP’s).
CR: The last NIOSH recommendation addresses PASS devices. Your firefighters each wore two; one integrated into the SCBA and the other attached to their coats. Yet, no one could recall hearing any audible alarms from any of the stricken firefighters. Could it be speculated that a thermal event inside the structure rendered the devices inoperable?
CW: The third party testing revealed that, due to the extreme thermal event, the electronics failed in all the audible devices. One more lesson; if it is man made, it can and most probably will fail at the worst time.
CR: Could you talk about relationships and their importance when dealing with a traumatic event?
CW: Considering I’ve been fortunate to have not had prior experience with a LODD, I would say we had to learn how to deal with the trauma. Fortunately, the firefighters respected each other through the entire ordeal. There were so many different emotions being experienced, you just had to wonder how the department would make it. I guess the Good Lord stayed with us through to the end. Although I’m sure we remain far from the end. Each person experiences grief in a different way and at different times. Knowing that you are going to have all these different emotions occurring, you have to stay on top of the game. We were able to come through this with little animosity and hurt feelings. It’s all about RESPECT.
CR: The last time you and I spoke, you told me about the McNally boys and I saw that gleam in your eye and that smile stretch across your face. Tell our readers about them.
CW: All three of our men had kids at home. Some were rather young and would need to analyze all of this at a later age. Some were older and could, for as well as can be expected, experience the pain and suffering of the loss of their father immediately. I really could not relate to them very well as I had never experienced a loss of this type. All I could do is sit back and pray that the children could rationalize the loss and continue to move forward. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, all has gone well. As for the McNally boys; they are doing well. Pat, the oldest son of Dave, was in college working towards a degree in law enforcement. He wised up, changed his mind and moved towards an education in fire science. Pat decided he wanted to be a firefighter. Of course, I was pleased with his decision. Any father would be excited about his son or daughter following in his footsteps. The difference is, Pat had experienced the worst of times. Then Pat came to my office and said he wanted to be a firefighter in Keokuk. Well, you can imagine the mixed emotions I had. We talked quite extensively regarding the reasons he wanted to be a firefighter. Pat had the right answers, the right attitude. Pat has been with the department for over a year now, and is doing very well. I just see so much of his father in him, sometimes he’ll do something or the look on his face will remind me of Dave, and I have to walk away. Usually with tears moving down my cheeks. Pat’s desire to be a firefighter in Keokuk also in some way makes me feel very good inside. Dave’s youngest son has also expressed an interest in the fire service, and he too would like to be a firefighter in Keokuk. I only hope I have the opportunity to make that a reality for him also.
CR: That is a fitting ending to this interview, but your story of that day will continue, won’t it? You have such a passion for this that I can tell that you never want anyone else, be it firefighter, family or friend to have to experience it. Your final thoughts, please, Mark.
CW: As it is written in Job, “Should we accept the good that is given and not accept the bad?” Life sometimes throws a curve and we take it on the chin. I knew even as a firefighter I had a responsibility to others. My partner was relying on me for his safety. Then as I was promoted, others were relying on me as well. Eventually the department became my responsibility, and things went bad. I had always thought that I operated safely.
Sometimes your eyes get opened unexpectedly. You don’t have to experience what Keokuk experienced. Why is it, we all know if we are punched in the nose, it is going to hurt like hell? Yet some of us still have to pick a fight to believe it. Let Keokuk be your punch in the nose. Let our incident be your incident. Study it. Pick it apart. Plug it into your operating procedures. Not just what is written, but how you actually operate on the scene. For most, you will probably find there are some major discrepancies in your written procedures and your everyday, take it for granted, on scene operations. You have the ability to “Make The Changes”. Do you have the desire? If not let someone else lead. From the bottom to the top, you must be willing to step forward. Not stand back, not stand still. This is not a social club. If you think it is, ask your family if the social pleasure is worth the risk? If you are not willing to train, then get out. Fishing is much more relaxing, but learn to swim first.
Many people have touched my life and supported my department and me through this tragedy. I can only say “Thank You” to all of them. To the Firefighters of Keokuk, my hat is off to them. They exemplify the definition of firefighter. They have supported me through this, when often lines are drawn in the sand.
As long as my mind, body and soul can summon the strength, I will continue to carry the message of firefighter safety. Listen to my pain and understand how important it is for “Everyone to go Home”. Keep that thought in the forefront of all you do. Do not buckle to the pressures of peers or politicians. If you can do this, you may just find yourself sleeping better at night. Stay Safe.
The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of www.fireengineering.com, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or any of their subsidiaries. All articles by the author are protected by copyright under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella and cannot be reproduced in any form without explicit permission from the article’s author.