Dark Day Anniversary

Two fires forever in the memory.

Every firefighter has one call that they will never, ever forget. Most of them involve fatalities… in my case, it was a triple fatal, 14 years apart ( I’ll get to that later in the story). What makes it particularly hard to forget is that the two fatalities were children. I still remember those dark day as if they happened yesterday.

I was assigned to our Rescue 1 (at that time, it was 2 man 1980 E-One/GMC light duty fast attack/rescue pumper) for the evening of January 3rdth, 1985, detailed over from the Engine because one of the firefighters assigned to that rig was out on a personal night that evening.

The evening tour of duty started out as it usually did… letting the firefighter who I was relieving on the Rescue know that I was in so he could go home, getting updates on what happened on the day tour, putting my gear on the rig, checking my SCBA unit, making sure that the portable radio was in the charger and operational and checking the other things I was responsible for. After that, it was up to the kitchen for dinner and the dorm room to make sure that my bed would be ready for me when I decided to turn in.

It was a typical night… a couple of medicals, a few “smells and bells” calls. That would change just after midnight on the morning of January 4th.

Fire Alarm received a single 911 call reporting a house fire at 460 South Street. Engine 2, Engine 4, Ladder 1, Rescue 1 and Car 4 were dispatched. The Police reported that they could see heavy smoke in the area, the Captain in Car 4 ordered the box to be struck based on the Police observation.

From our old Headquarters station, the address was a little over a mile away from the firehouse. My partner Lee was driving, and when we arrived as first due we heard the one phrase that every firefighter dreads… “my kids are still in there”…

I asked him where they were and he stated “the second floor… please save them!”

I opened up the compartment door where the passenger side SBCA was located and donned the unit. The side door to the house was open, and we made entry from that point. The smoke on the first floor was already banked down to the point that there was only 4 feet of visibility and that was rapidly diminishing, I could see the remains of the wall mounted telephone that he made the 911 call from melted down the wall and onto the floor.

My partner and I crawled across the floor into the next room, where we found the family’s Christmas tree and living room couch ablaze.  Finding the stairway to the second floor, we crawled upstairs on our hands and knees. There were three small  bedrooms on the second floor. I entered the first bedroom and began a search. I felt the top of the bed and found a victim.  One of our firefighters who was off duty and had responded to the fire when the box was struck had thrown a ground ladder to the second floor bedroom where I was and cleared out the window. He was shocked when I handed him the victim. At that point, I had no idea of the child’s sex or age; just the fact that he/she was not breathing and I had to get him/her  out of there if he/she was going to survive.

My partner had entered the second bedroom at the same time as I had made my discovery and found the other victim. I helped him take the child outside to the EMS crew from Marlboro- Hudson Ambulance, the City’s EMS transport provider at the time (then,  as now, we provide first response EMS with  just about the entire department at the EMT-B level) CPR was in progress on both children with the ALS unit from Marlborough Hospital aboard. It was then I found out that I had found the boy.

At Marlborough Hospital, both were rushed into the trauma room. Mary had a flicker of a heartbeat upon arrival, but she passed away despite the best efforts of the ER staff. Her brother was pronounced in the ER shortly after arrival.

It was what we call a “nickel and dime fire, room and contents” fire. The crews on the Engine companies knocked down the fire and between them, the Ladder crew and the off duty personnel who responded, they overhauled the area to ensure that there was no extension. During a secondary search to find the family’s dog, the dog was found in Mary’s room and it turns out that he was lying next to her, based on the soot on the sheets. The outline of body was also on the sheets of his bed.

It was totally preventable, as the cause of the fire was determined to be the careless disposal of smoking materials. The one smoke detector found in the house on the second floor had no battery in it. If there was a detector on the first floor, it had long melted into a mass of plastic and metal.

The Assistant Chief of the Department had called our employee assistance provider, who came the station at 0300 hours to conduct a critical incident stress debriefing. We were told that the children had died of severe smoke inhalation, and that they were probably gone when we first pulled up.

My partner and I were relieved of duty and told that we could go home… but both of us stayed at the firehouse. At 0800 hours, the tour was officially over and I went home to my wife and then 2 year old child. I had held it all together until I saw them. I broke down , hugged them tightly and cried for the O’Leary kids.

To this very day, I wonder “what if”…

Just a minute after midnight on March 18th, 1999 Engine 3, Engine 1, Ladder 1 and Rescue 1 responded to a fire on Wilson Street; I was the Lieutenant on Engine 3. As we were headed down Boston Post Road East, I heard the police over the scanning frequency say “tell the FD that the place is sailing…” The glow in the night sky was visible as we pulled onto Wilson Street. The house was well involved upon arrival. I ordered a deuce and half pulled off the rig. As we made entry, a piece of plaster fell off of the ceiling, knocking my helmet off of my head and onto the front steps. I told the crew to head in and that I would be right behind them. I watched as three firefighters fell through the floor and into the basement I called a Mayday. All three were rescued and transported for injuries sustained in the fall and the subsequent rescue effort. I still refer to that moment as my guardian angel looking out for me, as I would have gone through that floor along with the others.

The fire had started in a chair and gotten sucked into the cold air return unit for the heating system, burning out the floor in the living room. Back then code allowed for the use of the space between two joists sealed by a piece of sheet metal for cold air return to the furnace. That fire also was a fatal one. The body of an elderly man and his dog were found just 2 feet away from the back door. When the son of the victim arrived from work, I thought that he looked vaguely familiar… then he screamed “Oh my God… not again!” Hearing the voice brought me back to the night of 01/04/1985. He was the father of the 2 kids lost on that date.

Shortly after that, I collapsed and was taken to the Hospital for exhaustion and dehydration. The ER staff did a carboxyhemoglobin test to measure if I had any CO in my bloodstream, as I was complaining of a massive headache. CO levels were normal; the headache was attributed to the dehydration. I was given IV fluids and was released from the hospital at shift change.

I’ve been to a few more fatal fires since, but those two are forever etched in my memory.

Ron Ayotte is a Deputy Chief of the Marlborough (MA) Fire Department and employee to the Support Services division of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Service/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

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1 Comment

  • Carrie Lopez says:

    Dear Ron,
    I thank you for writing this. I was Mary’s best friend at Richer School. We were in first grade together. I have never recovered from that loss. Unfortunately, she was not treated well by others but I could see she was special. I have a few stories I could share with you about her.
    Before that loss, I didn’t understand that children could die. My mother was also a smoker so I automatically thought I was going to die too. I remember seeing her picture for her obituary and couldn’t believe she was gone forever. I wish someone would have saved that photo for me because she was such a big part of my life, even after she was gone. Do you happen to have that article or photo? I would give anything to see if I remember her correctly.
    I also want to thank you for trying to save her. Thank you for risking your life to try to save her. I love you for that.

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