I had everything in place to write my article for this newsletter. I had planned to discuss AFG vehicle applications for this year’s program and some special area’s of concern when planning your application. My outline was complete and a rough draft had been formulated. I had arrived at my office early on Tuesday morning to complete this task and I thought I would have no problem in emailing my completed article by lunchtime.
Shortly after sitting down at my computer my pager went off and my cellphone beeped with a message. It was another snowy morning in the mountains of west central Pennsylvania and I was positive that we were being dispatched to a vehicle accident.
Then I heard those words that make every firefighter move a lot quicker than usual. We were being dispatched to a structure fire with entrapment that was the result of an explosion. As I am traveling to the scene my cellphone is ringing. My chief is at work and wants to know what is going on and our dispatch center comes back on the air with an announcement that they had received information that there could possibly be hazardous materials involved. All of the training that I had received over all of those years starts to go through my head. What do I need to do? What do I need to remember? What should I be looking for?
As I arrived on scene the area looked like a war zone. The house was completely leveled and was nothing more than a pile of debris. 200 yards away fiberglass insulation, school papers, articles of clothing and books were strewn about the countryside. Sections of tape from VHS videos were hanging from the trees like streamers. A teenage boy, who was a resident of the home, had been placed in a stopped pickup truck by a good Samaritan. His father was still trapped inside the debris pile that once was his home. Firefighters worked feverishly to remove him and after a quick decon both the boy and his father were transported by EMS to local hospitals.
An additional victim was located partially inside what remains of a vehicle situated in the front yard of the home. This victim’s condition was very apparent from a distance. Additional fire personnel began to arrive on scene along with state police. By this point in time all of the residents of the structure had been accounted for through phone calls to the school and employer.
As we stepped back to reevaluate the situation the unthinkable started to become clear. The remains of the vehicle sitting in the front yard was not some unfortunate individual who happened to be sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time, but was actually the source of the explosion. This really couldn’t be true, could it? After all this was backwoods, rural Pennsylvania not Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.
But as time unfolded it was true. An individual had loaded his pickup truck full of explosives. Then drove to this residence and backed full speed into the structure. Then he detonated the device.
I started to go through a period of soul searching. Was this really worth it. What type of explosives did he use? Are we all facing some health risk because of our response to this incident. Where there unexploded agents still on scene?
When I joined the fire service four decades ago something like this wasn’t even imaginable. Now here I am watching our firefighters go through decon for possible exposure to a chemical agent. Why am I doing this? Why are we doing this? As time passed that day I became very resentful to this individual who just decided to alter everyone’s schedule and everyone’s life that day.
We spent over 12 hours at that scene and then we were called back out the following morning to assist ATF agents in cutting apart the remains of the bomber’s truck for investigative purposes. More time and more money wasted in my mind. The resentment continued to grow because we just spent the entire morning at this incident again.
In the evening just as I was starting to prepare dinner my pager went off again. Waiting for the dispatch I began to grumble because I felt sure we were returning to the previous incident again. Instead we were dispatched to a kitchen fire in town. When I arrived on scene we found an elderly homeowner who had started her oven to bake pies. It was the first time she used her oven in several weeks and it began to smoke. We investigated and found that mice must be stealing her dog’s food and starting to store it inside the electric range. We removed the smoldering dog food and ventilated the residence. As we were leaving the elderly lady said, “Thanks so much, I live alone and don’t know who would have ever helped me if you boys didn’t. I pray for you every time I hear that siren go off” Then it all came back to me why I continue to go on alarms.