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Here is an excerpt from my newly released book, "Common Valor: True Stories from America's Braves, Volume 1"
Mike was working as the Captain of Engine 7 when a call came in reporting a car fire in the midtown area of Jersey City. He and his crew responded and quickly extinguished the fire. As they were packing up, one of his crew members came up to him with a perplexed expression.
"Cap, look over there. Where’s all that smoke from?" the firefighter asked as he pointed over to a heavy column of smoke coming from a row of three story mixed occupancies. They were residential occupancies over stores located in a busy area called the five corners.
Mike grabbed his radio and called dispatch, "Engine 7 to dispatch do you have something coming in for Newark Avenue?" he asked.
"Yeah, we're transmitting a box for a reported building fire now Cap," the dispatcher replied.
"We're wrapping up here. We'll take it," Mike transmitted.
"Received, Engine 7." The dispatcher replied.
As the engine pulled in front of the fire building, Mike sized-up the situation. It was a three-story brick and wood constructed building with smoke and fire pushing out of two third-story rear windows. Mike gave his initial radio report to dispatch and immediately began stretching a line up the interior stairwell along with a new firefighter named John, who was also assigned to Engine 7. A third firefighter was helping the two stretch the line out to prevent the hose from getting kinked or caught up on anything. The driver, or Chauffeur as this position is often referred to in the fire service, communicated with the in-coming engine company that would be second due on the scene. The driver on that apparatus would help secure a water supply from a near-by hydrant.
"This is going to be a piece of cake," Mike said to John as they approached the top of the landing.
They were stretching a dry line to make for a quicker and easier advance. Once they find the fire, Mike would call for the chauffeur to charge the line. He figured that since the fire was already venting from a couple of rear windows, the heat and smoke would be minimal. All they would have to do is hit the fire with water after charging the line and extinguish it. The other companies were approaching the scene, but Engine 7 would have to work alone for the initial stretch and attack.
When Mike and John reached the top floor, the two began to make their way down a narrow three-foot wide hallway toward the rear apartment. They passed through a double-sided swinging door, then another. Each door swung open in both directions. They moved on their knees, but were able to keep their heads high because the heat wasn't significant enough to force them down lower to the floor. This was partially because the fire was venting itself through the windows and partly because the doors helped to confine the fire and elements to its room of origin.
They reached and opened the final door that sat between them and the apartment that was on fire only to be greeted by a raging inferno. The room was fully involved and the heat quickly banked down on top of them. Since both men expected this, neither were alarmed. Mike directed John to back out of the room and into the hallway so they could charge the line with water and re-enter the room with protection. It was common practice in the Jersey City fire department for the firefighter to handle the nozzle at the end of the hose. The Captain's job was to stay alongside him and make the decision where to direct the stream. He would also communicate with the other officers on the scene to inform them as to their progress, or lack thereof.
As the door in between them and the fire closed, they prepared for their attack. "Engine 7 driver, you can charge the line," Mike directed.
"Received Cap, I'm charging the line," the Chauffeur responded.
Mike and John braced themselves for the water. They knew that when the dry hose line, which was flaked in a zig-zag pattern throughout a structure, is charged with water the sudden surge would push it out in awkward positions. They expected it would take them a few seconds to adjust before they could reopen the door and attack the fire. The two firefighters sat in the narrow hallway, just outside of the fire room, and waited for the thrust of water. The fire roared as they impatiently held their position. The volume of fire was large and intense enough to begin burning a h*** through the door.
Where's the damn water? Mike wondered as the temperature in the hallway continued to rise. The hose began to vibrate, signaling that water was making its way through the line. They braced themselves and waited with the nozzle aimed at the door, but nothing was happening. The fire was eating the door at a faster rate than either had previously experienced, and the heat was banking down hard on top of them.
"Open the nozzle," Mike called to John, anticipating the water to fill the hose at any moment.
John pulled back on the handle, fully opening the nozzle. Water trickled out the end of the hose and onto the floor about two feet in front of them. The fire continued to move into the hallway where they were staged causing Mike to grow more impatient.
"Engine 7 driver, increase the pressure… increase the pressure!" He called into his radio.
"I'm giving you what I'm supposed to be giving you, Cap, you've got a full charge." The Chauffeur replied.
The Chauffeur was pumping the line for the exact amount of PSI he was supposed to for the length of and diameter of the hose they were using, but Mike was barely getting a drop through the nozzle. It resembled a water fountain more than a hose stream.
Without water, the two were helpless and the heat began pushing them back into what felt like a wall behind them. Smoke filled the hallway causing them to lose visibility, so Mike decided to pull back and wait for water at a safer distance. He reached behind and felt a wall on his right and on his left.
Where's the door? Mike wondered. He was slightly disoriented and beginning to feel anxious. He realized that the door must have closed behind them, so he extended his right arm and slid the palm of his gloved hand up and down, feeling for a doorknob. There wasn't one. He repeated the process with his left arm. Nothing. Maybe this isn't the door, he thought, Where the hell are we?
Mike reached down and grabbed the hose so he could follow it out of the room. Surely the hose line would lead to the open doorway. It was a good plan, however, he quickly realized that the swing door had closed on the hose before the line was charged. When the chauffeur sent water through the line, the bottom of the doorframe acted as a clamp, stopping the water from passing through and jamming the door in shut position. Mike and John were trapped in the burning hallway without the protection of water.
Mike tried to push the door open but it wouldn't budge. The fire continued its rapid growth. The flames pushed John back onto Mike who was now stuck in between the firefighter and the door. Remembering that the door swung both ways, and considering that the hose on the other side of the door was full of water, Mike realized he would have to pull the door open, not push it. He frantically tried to get off the door, but the flames were only a couple of feet in front of John, who was pushing back hard on top of him. Mike was helpless and the two were burning up without the protection of water. During the struggle, his radio strap became twisted and he couldn't find his microphone to call for help.
John was screaming from the extreme heat.
"Don’t stop flowing water!" Mike yelled, even though they only had a minimal amount of water flowing through the pinched hose line. He knew they would need every drop they could get on the fire. "Keep it on the ceiling!" He added, hoping to keep the flames from making direct contact with the two of them.
As they continued to struggle, Captain Pete Griese and his crew from Engine 15 were on their way up with a backup hose line. They moved up the stairs and down the hallway quickly because they heard the firefighters screaming. When Engine 15 came up to the first of the two swinging doors, they noticed that it was closed on the line. This meant that not one, but two doors we're pinning the line down. They forcefully pushed the door off the line and moved swiftly down the hall toward Mike and John. They came up to the second door and could hear the trapped firefighters on the other side. Griese attempted to push that door open also, but he could feel resistance on the other side. Mike and John were now pushing hard into the door. The charged line was forcefully wedged underneath, preventing them from escaping.
This is it! Mike thought. We're done! The fire was rolling several feet below the ceiling level. It felt as if the flames were touching their face-pieces and wrapping around their helmets. Their air was running low and they were exhausted.
"I’m burning up!" John screamed.
"Keep it flowing. Don’t shut that line!" Mike screamed back at him. He was hoping that they could beat the fire back enough that he could get John off him and allow the crew of Engine 15 to power the door open.
Hearing their conversation, Griese knew he had to do something fast, so he pushed against the door with everything he had. Mike and John resisted, but Griese was able to get the door open enough to free the hose from the beneath the door and provide enough of an opening for the distressed firefighters to fit though. Mike and John fell back into the hallway to where Engine 15 was. The two raced through the hall and down the stairs as fast as they could, fearing that they might run out of air. The fire had gained so much momentum that it pushed Griese and his crew back as well. When all of them reached the bottom of the staircase the incident commander pulled everyone out of the building and transitioned to a defensive attack.
Mike was shaken up after the incident. Over the next few days he analyzed what had gone wrong and contemplated how he could have prevented it. This was his closest call by far and he didn't want to find himself in that position again. After the incident, he became a walking hardware store, filling his pockets with wedge shaped wooden pieces that he would use to chock every door he walked through to prevent it from closing behind him. He began preaching the importance of such minor things like chocking doors to every firefighter who would listen. He also swore never to refer to any job as a "piece of cake" again because he had learned that the fire ground is a very aggressive, active environment that changes rapidly, and no one can predict every challenge that each job will bring.