When Ben worked with the Palatka Fire Department, he responded to a call that will stay with him during his entire career. This is his story.
There were flames visible out of the roof when we arrived on the scene. It was a single-story ranch style home, probably about 60 to 70% involved by the time we rolled up.
I bunked out, everything on except my helmet and gloves as I jumped out of the truck. Our pump operator yanked the hose off while I ran to the bumper to grab the rest of my gear. I worked on getting the hose ready when a police officer ran over and got our attention. “The kids, they’re in there!” he said. “There’s three of them!”
I threw the line to the ground and ran to the corner of the house where the officer pointed. The fire was in the adjacent room, bursting out of the windows.
I took the officer’s flashlight and immediately jumped into the kids’ room head first, landing on a pile of blankets. I could feel the intensity of the heat in the next room. The smoke crept in.
I searched through the blankets and came upon the first child. Her body was still, all tangled up in the sheets. I scooped her up and handed her through the window to the Battalion Chief. Two other firemen started trying to resuscitate her, and I ducked back into the room. I searched the room twice, turning over everything I could find, looking for the other two kids.
The heat was unbearable and I was forced to exit at my chief’s command. By then the second engine had arrived. They’d made an entry on a side door, attempting to cool down the seat of the fire.
I threw my whole body into the door. Once. Twice. After my third hit, the door fell in, taking me with it. Flames rolled over my head, and the chief hit the entry with the hose to knock down the flames.
There was a hallway near where I’d begun my search, and I told the chief I wanted to keep looking. Our lieutenant came with me, and we walked quickly through the hallway back toward the first room where I searched. We were on our hands and knees, crawling below the smoke and staying as low as possible. I extended my right hand and felt my way around the room where the children were supposed to be.
I felt a small foot and took hold of it. I pulled, getting a good grip on the kid’s body and pulled her to me, half running, half jumping over the LT in the hallway. I made my way back out of the structure. A light flashing ahead of me, where the fire marshall was waiting to grab her. I sprinted ahead toward rescue.
We were out. My face mask stuck to my face with my frantic efforts to regain my breath. Someone took the girl from my arms and I collapsed onto the grass. I cried as steam rose from my body. My crew surrounded me and began to strip off my gear. They brought me water, took my air pack, and I sat there, utterly drained and burning up. There was glass embedded in my bottle, which cut our pump operator’s fingers when he pulled it off me.
I asked about the third child. It turned out the baby was safe. A neighbor had apparently leapt naked out of bed when he noticed the fire and broken the window in the parent’s room and rescued the baby prior to the engines’ arrival.
The first child I’d rescued was flown by helicopter to an ICU and lived.
But the second child I’d pulled from the house didn’t make it.
She was only six years old.
Fire school never prepares you for this part of the job. I cried at the loss of such a young life. I wondered if there was anything more I could have possibly done. Regret and “what-ifs” punctuated my daily thoughts. I kept thinking about how she could’ve been my daughter’s friend.
The family asked me to attend the funeral. I think I cried more than anyone else there. I hugged the girl’s mother right and I just kept repeating “I’m sorry” over and over again, and I heard nothing but her sobbing reassurances that I’d done everything I could.
My crew members stood by my side as I approached the girl’s casket. I put my hand on it and said my goodbyes. I told her I was sorry one more time.
In the months later I received an award for heroism in Jacksonville by the Heroes of the First Coast. I accepted the award and ate dinner with other first responders who received awards that day. The city also recognized me for heroism above and beyond the call of duty. But the phrase I became so familiar with saying was “I just did what I was trained to do.”
The Battalion Chief said that one of his biggest concerns was watching one of his men disappear into the black smoke and not return. He feared for my life, and the life of the others in the crew, but on site that day he never hesitated to let me do my job.
I still think of that girl and what she’d be doing with her life had she survived. I’ll never stop thinking about her.