In this ever evolving safety culture of ours, there are some who make the hard choice of whether or not to search strictly by knowledge of a building’s occupancy alone. Prior to arriving on the scene they have set their mind fast to an unchangeable bias that says they will not go to dark places deep within an larger unknown, for they have to save themselves and their ‘brothers’ first.
Then there are those who have not given in to popular culture and who are mentally able to adapt their firefighting knowledge and experience to the current situation, whatever it may be. They use COAL WAS WEALTH, WALLACE WAS HOT, RECEO, BELOW, ADULTS and other instruments in the mental toolbox, knowing full well that no two fires, or structures, are the same. They do not encourage the recklessness of the simpleminded because they are also mindful that being smart is being safe also. They too may have that fear of dark unknowns, but they also have a conviction about why they came in the first place.
Firefighter John Smith is one of these men.
A 63-year-old Boston firefighter, making his way up a stairway through black smoke, pulled a homeless man to safety from a burning warehouse in South Boston yesterday afternoon.
John Smith, a firefighter for 40 years, was being hailed as a hero for rescuing the man from the two-alarm blaze on West First Street at C Street.
“There was heavy smoke,’’ Smith said at the fire scene yesterday. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.’’
Firefighters from Boston Fire Rescue Company No. 1, responding to a radio call warning that people might be trapped in the vacant warehouse, entered with their tools and air masks, splitting up into two search groups. Two firefighters tripped and fell into 4 feet of standing water in the basement. But Smith, feeling his way up a flight of stars, finally found the man, who was alone in the building when firefighters arrived. Smith said the man, who had been squatting in the building, was disoriented from the smoke. The firefighter led the man outside and turned him over to waiting Boston EMS medics. There were no other injuries. However, the man Smith rescued, identified as Jean Jaquez Eve, 49, was arrested after being treated. Eve was wanted after failing to appear in court on an August 2008 charge of open and gross lewdness for urinating in public, Boston police said. Fire officials at the scene praised the firefighters, especially the veteran Smith, for their actions.
“They did a fabulous job,’’ said Boston Fire Department District Chief Gregory Mackin, who was in charge of firefighter safety at the blaze. “They went in there, there was a heavy fire condition, no visibility, and they pulled a man out.’’
In firefighting, the rescue unit typically goes into a fire without a hose line, with the sole intention of searching for and saving people who may be trapped. It’s considered one of the most dangerous tasks on the job.
Fire officials said the rescued man was one of several people living in the warehouse. Inside the building, an intricately organized squatters’ residence could be seen, with beds, televisions, microwaves, and even a stocked kitchen setup, complete with a spice rack. Fire officials said yesterday that the legally vacant building was even wired for electricity.
The city’s fire and police departments, health department, and Inspectional Services Division are investigating the fire and the squatters’ dwelling inside the building.
Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said the call came in around 2:30 p.m., and the fire took about an hour to put out. Officials estimated the damage at $50,000.
These large warehouses often appear inviting for squatters. While they can provide the protection of a roof and four walls from the winter elements, there are dangers. And in a fire, the uncertainty of whether squatters are inside creates a danger for firefighters.
On Dec. 3, Worcester commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the Cold Storage warehouse fire, in which six firefighters were killed as they were looking for squatters inside the building.
South Boston is home to an array of warehouses and industrial-type buildings, and fire officials know that homeless people gather here.
“Since Worcester, there’s been a heightened awareness among firefighters’’ as they go about their searches, MacDonald said.
Smith said his crew stayed focused on saving anyone who might be inside the warehouse yesterday. “This is a prime spot for homeless people at this time of year,’’ he said. “Inside these buildings, they can set up quite a bit of housekeeping and stay there for quite some time.’’
He acknowledged the danger, but shrugged it off.
“We did our job, and that’s what we’re paid to do,’’ Smith said. “There’s nothing more to say.’’
The building is owned by SB Housing Enhancement LLC, said Lisa Timberlake, a spokeswoman for Inspectional Services.
In 2006, the Chicago developer proposed to the Boston Redevelopment Authority building a 245-unit condominium and retail complex on the site. Timberlake said inspectional services will cite the developer for having an unsafe property and leaving it open to trespassers and the elements.
The warehouse was sectioned off by the squatters into several illegal mini-apartments that were strewn with debris and dozens of bottles filled with urine.
Electrical power was brought into the building by illegally bypassing the power meter and jumping cables directly from the electrical lines coming into the building, Timberlake said.