Ohio firefighters recall surviving explosion

Three firefighters were thrown through the air by a gas explosion; recovery for all three was long, tough and emotional

By Kathy Lynn Gray
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The construction worker who showed up at the Hilltop fire station was nonchalant. He thought an underground gas pipe had been punctured on W. Broad Street and asked firefighters to take a look.

Firefighters respond to gas leaks every day, and most don't amount to much. But this one, less than a block from Fire Station 17, was about to turn into an urban bomb that would change the lives of three firefighters forever.

Patrick Malone, Barbara Capuana and Dan Whiteside had no inkling of that as they logged the run at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2008. They hopped onto the heavy-rescue truck for the brief ride to the Cherry Box adult bookstore at 2326 W. Broad St.

Battalion Chief Johnnie Wood was already there, starting to divert traffic around the construction site.

A slight odor of gas was coming from a hole in the road. Malone, Capuana and Whiteside told the workers to clear out.

A man in front of the Cherry Box told Malone that the building smelled like gas. No one's inside, he said.

The three firefighters began to walk in single file around the building. They had all their gear on except their gloves.

Malone, 51, was in front. He was 6 feet from the front door when he heard a whooshing sound.

"I knew exactly what was happening," he said. "I made a quarter turn away from it, and then I was thrown backward 18 feet."

The building had exploded.

Regaining awareness
Capuana, 50, didn't hear the whoosh. She had no warning before the building blew, pitching her into the air and across Broad Street.

She landed on her left side, dazed and covered in bricks and debris.

"I didn't even realize what had happened," she said.

She raised her head and looked for Malone and Whiteside.

Malone was standing face-first against Engine 10, which had pulled up minutes earlier.

"His skin was hanging off," she said.

Whiteside lay in the middle of Broad Street, about 10 feet to her right.

"The thing that scared me the most was, he wasn't moving."

Even now, 22 months after the explosion that blew off his helmet, "all I can remember is a loud noise and a bright flash," Whiteside, 46, said.

"I landed facedown on Broad Street, and I was unconscious for a while."

When he came to, firefighters were cutting off his gear. Searing pain ran down his left side. Fire had burned off his eyebrows. The flash from the explosion had seared his retinas.

"They said I kept repeating, 'Where's Pat and Barb?' "

Natural gas that ignites in a contained space can become a bomb. That's what happened that day.

"I heard a rumbling noise inside the building, and then a ball of fire raised the roof off the top," said Wood, the battalion chief, who had been standing in the middle of Broad Street.

"Then a huge ball of flame shot out the front door."

The shock wave knocked him off his feet. Bricks, wood and glass were flying like shrapnel, and some of the smaller stuff slashed his face. The heat burned the hair off his arms.

Wood saw Malone fly through the air and crumple like a rag doll against Engine 10.

Lt. Steven Leis, who had been on the other side of the truck, was the first to reach Malone.

"He was lying on his side and trying to get up," said Leis, who had responded to the fire call from Station 10, less than 2 miles away on W. Broad. "I saw the burns on his hands, and the skin was starting to come off."

As soon as paramedics arrived to care for Malone and the other two firefighters, Leis turned his attention to fighting the fire.

'A sick feeling'
"It's a very sick feeling when you see three firefighters lying there," he said. "But you have to make sure the scene is OK."

Medic Chris Kennedy, who heard the blast from Station 10, joined others helping Malone.

"We stripped his clothes off, and his hands were starting to swell, so we took his ring off and his watch," Kennedy said.

Malone, a medic himself, was alert enough to tell Kennedy what he needed as they rushed to Ohio State University Medical Center.

Capuana and Whiteside, meanwhile, were taken to Mount Carmel West hospital.

Six hours passed before the gas leak and fire were contained. The building housing the bookstore and a second-story apartment was a total loss.

But even as the fire burned, news about the injured firefighters spread through the brotherhood.

The same camaraderie that caused each of the three to think first of the other two after the explosion brought an outpouring of visitors and support.

"It's a family," Malone said. "When something happens, it affects everyone."

Capuana and Whiteside stayed just one night in the hospital, then checked themselves out.

"I know a lot of people showed up that day, but I can't remember any of them," Whiteside said. "Every time I sat up I'd get dizzy, but I had a feeling I just had to get out of there."

Both he and Capuana rushed over to see Malone, whose hands were wrapped in so much white gauze that he looked like a snowman.

"This is our family away from home," Whiteside said. "I got so many phone calls we had to turn our phones off the first week."

The road to recovery
Recovery for all three was long, tough and emotional.

Doctors found third-degree burns on Malone's left hand and second-degree burns, some deep, on his right hand and face. During seven days in the hospital, skin was grafted onto his right hand, and the burned skin on his face was peeled off.

He had four surgeries as he gradually recovered the use of his hands.

Many of Capuana's and Whiteside's injuries didn't show up until weeks after the explosion. They visited surgeons and orthopedists and had months of physical therapy to heal and strengthen their wounded muscles and bones.

The blast had thrown Capuana's left arm back so hard that ligaments were torn and tendons were sheared off. Vertebrae in her back were twisted, and one knee was entirely numb. She had short-term memory loss, cuts on her face from flying glass and ringing in her ears.

Whiteside had a cervical tear in his lower neck, a torn meniscus in his left knee and a bruised kidney.

All three went to counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Malone, a firefighter for 33 years, was the first to return to work, a year after the blast. Capuana, a 27-year veteran, followed a month later; Whiteside, a 19-year veteran, a month after that.

Counselors still help them deal with the traumatic experience that could have ended their careers and their lives.

Sometimes, "You look back and say, 'What if?' " Malone said.

What if the man from the bookstore hadn't told them no one was in the building? They would have gone inside to check.

"And we'd be dead," Malone said.

They try instead to look ahead. All three say they're grateful to be alive, happy to be back at work, unafraid about the risks inherent in the job.

"To me, the guys in the staging area were the real heroes," Malone said.

"They had just watched three of their comrades get blown up. These guys thought we were dead. But they didn't miss a beat. The medics were on us immediately."

Copyright 2010 The Columbus Dispatch
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