An ordinary day with extraordinary results: Detailing the St. Louis child rescues
St. Louis firefighters and battalion chiefs share a play-by-play of the astonishing – and unexpected – rescues
"It was an ordinary day at an ordinary fire, in an ordinary building, with extraordinary results."
That's how St. Louis Fire Department Battalion Chief Duane Greer described Aug. 15, 2019 – a day that started like any other but ended with crews pulling child after child from an apartment fire in the city.
I had the great pleasure to sit down with members of the St. Louis crews who made those heroic rescues, along with their battalion chiefs, to talk about the Ohio Avenue incident: Firefighter Patrick Ferguson, Firefighter Joshua Roth, Battalion Chief Greer, Battalion Chief Steve Rick, Firefighter Jim Fuchs and Captain Chris Erb Jr.
As we would suspect, each of the firefighters protests the "hero" label, saying it was "just another day doing our job."
Initial complications at a 'cookie-cutter' building
Chief Greer sets the stage as we begin the interview: "It was a beautiful day, and this was a normal-looking building – cookie-cutter, everything about it, we've done this a thousand times."
A dog-walking citizen called 911 to report the fire, and first-arriving companies reported smoke showing from the second floor. There was no one jumping up and down out front, no indication of anything particularly amiss other than the smoke showing.
“[Initial-arriving crews Truck Company 7 and 14] went in front door, and it became clear pretty quickly something was wrong,” Greer explained. “While there was clearly a fire above, there was no way to get to it from here.”
As crews were searching through the first floor for access to the second-floor fire, fire began venting through at least one window on the second floor. It became evident quickly there would be no second-floor access through the front door. These Ohio Avenue buildings were newer, and while everything appeared cookie-cutter on arrival, the department had not previously fought a fire in these buildings.
Firefighter Ferguson arriving on the Rescue offered this assessment: “This was a bread-and-butter fire. We are extremely efficient on these because of the number we get. It was pretty obvious by the time we arrived that the door the initial-arriving engine crew went in wasn’t the correct door. I began to walk around and noticed that an officer was trying to force open a side door (B side).”
Ferguson began assisting the officer; however, security features slowed that progress and hampered access.
“The door confusion took some time to figure out,” he said.
Although not universally defined the same, it has been my experience that this style of construction has been referred to as “piggyback construction” – independent addresses and accesses front and rear, which may be back-to-back or one over the other, as was found to be the case on Ohio Avenue.
Noting the access confusion, with no access obvious and fire now showing from two second-floor windows, impinging on the attic eves, a truck company firefighter took to an exterior attack – what Battalion Chief Greer described as an “unintentional transitional attack.”
Captain Erb added, “We [Truck Company 14] arrived seeing fire shooting out of a window, water being flowed into another window – we figured this was a one-room burnout and it was just about it.”
Chief Greer arrived as the firefighter was flowing water from the outside.
“When I rolled up and saw my man shooting a hoseline through the window – let me tell you, we’re a pretty aggressive interior (firefighting) department, so I was somewhat taken aback that he was attempting a transitional attack when there was a line in the front door.”
Size-up and changing tempo
The scene tempo at this point could easily be described as “coordinated chaos.”
Crews faced a two-story multi-family residential structure of ordinary construction that’s gone from smoke showing to fire showing. They have a crew in the front door that has been unable to locate the fire, a firefighter is flowing water from the outside, another crew attempting side B access, and no residents outside to give any information that would provide any indication of anything.
As Chief Greer attempts to gather additional information, Firefighter Ferguson explains what happened next: “We [Rescue Squad 1] finally found the correct door on side C. We started up the stairs, not a lot of heat, but it was smoky – we did not have a hoseline at this point. As we masked up, we could see there was fire to the right.”
An unexpected find: Four young victims upstairs
While Fire Private Billy Meyer, acting caption of Truck Company 7, radioed the correct access, the initial crew was attempting to back the first-floor line out to reposition for attack. Other companies begin arriving, and Chief Greer begins coordinating the attack.
As Ferguson saw the fire to the right, he went left at a bathroom to search – nothing found. Noting with the flow path introduction that the smoke had now banked down – Chief Greer says to knee-level – Ferguson moved next to a closed bedroom door. As soon as he opened the door, he heard what he described as “kid noises.”
“I stopped to listen and looked down at my feet to find a baby wiggling around on the floor,” Ferguson said. “I put my tool down, scooped the kid up, looked ahead and could see a 4-year-old [Taylor] farther in, in front of me. I turned to Captain Erb behind me and told them there was another kid in there – I’m taking this one down.”
Captain Erb grabbed Taylor, and Firefighters Roth and Fuch continued the search. They could hear other noises.
Ferguson exited the building with the baby, noting “there’s always firefighters standing outside that could help.” Nope, not here. No one on side C, no one on side B, finally help on side A.
Ferguson yelled for his driver to retrieve the medic bag, and they began to administer infant CPR in the front yard on the now-lifeless baby. “I was still on air and saw another guy [Captain Erb] running out with a kid, still on air.”
Stop for a second and reconsider the size-up and tempo. The hoseline now coming up the steps, kids coming down – still “bread and butter,” with a twist, but the adrenaline level sure changed instantly for the crews. It’s no longer just an ordinary fire, and still no residents around. Something’s obviously wrong in their minds.
Chief Greer was desperately trying to get good information about the number of victims, making sure he has enough EMS resources committed to respond. The best Captain Erb can give the chief is “there’s at least 3.”
Firefighters Roth and Fuchs each found a child, one in a closet, one in a play tent. One was brought out, while the other is passed down the now-clogged stairwell for other firefighters to take to the front.
While the firefighters were working the kids in the front yard, Chief Greer noted the roadways are narrow and clogged with fire trucks – EMS units are a block away. As the transport units arrive, firefighters begin carrying kids to the units.
The hoseline makes it up, and firefighters finish both the search and the firefight.
As has been mentioned a couple times, not once was there any indication of this incident being anything but the bread-and-butter fire. Not once was there an indication of people trapped.
Cameras are always poised and ready
Although it wasn’t planned, the Ohio Avenue incident happened at a time when local media photographers were nearby and prepared to capture the drama.
Firefighters estimate that they were inside for three minutes or so before the first rescue made it out.
Although the firefighters didn’t realize it, as they pulled each kid out, photographers were “all over it,” as they say.
The experience provided a not-so-subtle reminder that, good or bad, we should always be acting and reacting in the best interest of the communities we serve, always assuming there are cameras around.
Everyone wishes those kids didn’t have to experience what they did, and Chief Greer commented on the power of the pictures: “The pictures drive the prevention message, but the people have to be responsive to the message. How do I do anything stronger than those images? That’s above my paygrade.”
The building is still on fire
Let’s step back and consider how everything played out on this fire.
Even with the confusion related to the correct entry point, crews were taking appropriate actions to obtain access and hold the fire at bay until access could be gained. Yet once victims are found – and not just one victim but kid after kid after kid after kid – it is important for incident commanders (ICs) to focus on their global responsibility with the incident – the rescues, fire, personnel safety and structural stability.
While he was focused on the “unintentional transitional attack,” then the rescues, then the fire, then the transports, then the investigation, Chief Greer admits the temptation to get drawn into the rescues was daunting to overcome. Even though this fire was no longer “ordinary,” training and 32 years of knowledge and experience helped Chief Greer focus on the overall mission.
Once the hoseline made it up the steps, the fire was a quick knockdown, helped by the window-watching firefighter out front.
CPR had been performed on three children in the front yard, and all four victims were delivered to the hospital with pulses and spontaneous respirations. There were no fatalities and no other injuries.
Processing and coping: 'We all have kids'
Battalion Chief Steve Rick, who served as safety officer at the incident, and Greer held a “hot wash” on the scene. Note: Hot washes are a critical step in capturing immediate information and helping firefighters and paramedics learn and cope with the stresses that these incidents bring. Recognizing that each of the firefighters I interviewed have kids, the emotional toll is amplified on their psyche. While Firefighter Ferguson jumped in a transport unit and went to the hospital with both the infant he rescued and the 4-year-old, the other members remained on the scene to finish the search and firefight. Ferguson commented that it really didn’t hit him until a little later that these kids were the same ages as his own.
Ferguson acknowledged that they probably “lost half of the alarm to literal childcare” as the kids started coming out.
Crewmembers indicated that the hardest part was not knowing the final outcome of the children for some time. Fortunately, all four children lived and were later released from the hospital. The mother, who had left the kids alone, did return home while the firefighters were still there. That situation was turned over to law enforcement officers on the scene.
Ohio Avenue takeaways
Some describe incidents like this as “once in a lifetime,” and that may be the case for some. Others will face similar incidents many times in their careers – and still others have yet to experience their once-in-a-lifetime incident. As such, it’s critical that we share key takeaways so we are better prepared for if and when we face the same or similar conditions.
- Predictability of response at “bread-and-butter” fires: ALWAYS expect the unexpected. Speaking to the initial stages, Chief Greer noted, “Even with the door confusion, everything went smooth because we didn’t know there were kids inside.” The “piggy-back” construction is not normal in St. Louis and clearly presents access challenges. Kids weren’t reported as trapped, yet four were pulled out.
- Transitional attack contributed to the victims’ survival: Chief Greer commented on how transitional attack helped at this incident: “Old-school firefighting tactics frown on transitional attack. I admit when I saw my man standing there with an open door and he was flowing water in the window, I was miffed. When I found the details that he was keeping it at bay while they looked for the door, then it made it OK for me. I am starting to become OK with the fact that transitional attack, under the right conditions, CAN be effective.”
What was found in this incident was not only did the exterior attack slow the fire’s growth but, to the “unintentional” reference, the outside water stream dropped the ceiling drywall, allowing the smoke and heat to lift a bit, just in time for the rescues to be made and the interior attack line to become operational. Had that ceiling dropped and allowed a more prolonged roof-truss exposure to fire conditions, experience has shown that collapse would have been a likely outcome.
- Incident command system (ICS) concepts worked: As the tempo changed from the everyday to the extraordinary, Battalion Chiefs Greer and Rick spoke to the command and control necessary to focus the effort, from rescue and transport to firefight and extinguishment. The ICS provides the framework for everyone to be a part of the solution instead of part of the chaos.
While there’s no way to know whether a more thorough 360-report on this incident would have made in difference, they agreed the evolution of the 360 report is a valuable tool for first-in companies and ICs to use in tactical decision-making processes.
- Train like you fight, so you can fight like you train: Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place for a reason. Earlier in 2019, each company in the St. Louis Fire Department was put through time-trials focused on the basics of those procedures and orders: hoseline management, search and rescue, and company proficiency.
During the evolutions, there was a competitive spirit, with the department publishing and the companies posting their times on social media for the next shift or station to attempt to best. Battalion Chief Rick commented, “[Success was] training, sticking with it, not deviating from it. In this case, no warning of the kids, and we stuck to the training, understanding transitional attack has its place.”
Captain Erb’s company was down to two regular shift members, but the bread-and-butter training topics everyone had recently been through fit just about everything that happened on Ohio Avenue, helping even a blended crew to work together like a well-oiled machine.
Fuchs emphasized that, “Training makes a difference every time.” And Roth noted that, “even with irregular people working, it was a cohesive team effort,” underscoring the positive outcome of training together.
- Prevention matters; your words matter! There were working smoke alarms in the building, and the kids were all found behind a closed door. While the firefighters may never know what exactly happened, the kids were the only ones there when a mattress caught fire. Crews don’t know whether that was related to a fire prevention message, but to have had the presence of mind to retreat to a separate room behind a closed door speaks to many of the messages our industry preaches.
A team effort of humble public servants
The humble firefighters I met with in St. Louis all spoke to the emotional toll of recognizing similarities to their own children, while acknowledging the many incidents where the outcomes are far less positive.
We all share the desire to serve our communities, as we also share the bonds and the scars that these incidents leave upon us. While it is certainly difficult for any of us to accept any reason for leaving kids this young home alone – our mission is service. Part of that service is to preach the virtues of fire safety and prevention, with the hopes that our message gets through.
Firefighter Ferguson left me with this: “We had really good results, everybody went home and kissed their babies a little extra. It was a team effort, none of us could have done it alone. The public thinks we do this every day – they expect this is normal. Is it?”