A Firefighter's Song: Not a Hero
A firefighter writes a song to remember a traumatic call and the life lost in it
It's a night he'll never forget.
It's a call that, after nearly three decades, still haunts him.
Don Murdock, 62, a former Ontario firefighter and now instructor, has had firefighting in his blood since he was a child.
"When I was a kid, I guess I was one of the youngest junior firefighters in our area. Apparently there's a picture of me at four or five years old riding a fire truck," Murdock said.
After spending time as a volunteer, Murdock became a full-time firefighter.
Murdock battled blazes and saved lives for 15 years before he transitioned into becoming an instructor. And in those 15 years, Murdock won Canada's Medal of Bravery and was lauded as hero, but as many firefighters will tell you, he wasn't the hero — someone else was.
The hero, Murdock says, was a two-year-old girl who lost her life in a fire in March 1985.
Children still inside
It was just after midnight. Murdock and the rest of crew arrived on scene to find a home already fully involved and stacks of smoke billowing above.
A young girl, a babysitter, was standing outside, screaming and panicking. She pointed into the burning home and continued to scream.
She said there were still children inside.
Murdock and another firefighter entered the home, but quickly became disoriented.
"There was so much smoke in there at the time, we couldn't see two feet in front of us," Murdock said.
As the pair tried to navigate the smoke-filled hallways, another team entered through a different door. Murdock then heard his partner screaming. He followed the noise, then the flashover hit.
"We got knocked down to the ground, but that was actually the only opportunity I had to see anything," Murdock said. "Then my helmet melted."
Despite that, he helped his partner up and was able to find a girl. He got her out safely and re-entered the building and brought his partner, who was carrying a baby girl, to the front door.
They rushed into an ambulance, Murdock performing CPR on the baby until they got to the hospital.
When they arrived, Murdock hesitated to give the baby up.
The physicians told Murdock it was okay.
"I turned around and looked at my reflection off some glass and all I could see was that my face was totally black and tears were coming out of my eyes," he said. "I knew she had gone."
Called a hero
On New Year's Day, Murdock saved a life. He arrived on scene to find a man yelling that his son was inside their burning home.
Murdock managed to get the boy out, and after that, he was commended as a hero. Living in a small community, word of his rescue spread fast and it stuck even quicker.
"It seemed like for the next year and a half, it just seemed like I was just being called a hero," Murdock said. "It got to the point where any call I went to the guys would say 'Don what are you doing here? There's no one here to save.'"
While he understands it was all just joking around, he admits that being called a hero brought back the haunting memories of the night the little girl died.
"It was hard, I would go by the house and say a little prayer," Murdock said. "I just promised her: 'If I ever one day could do anything to make sure that your brief existence, your life is going to mean something to somebody someday…'"
That day, Murdock would find out, would be the day he started working with Brian Dolph, a Canadian songwriter and producer and Mary-Lynn Neil, a 15-year-old rising star.
"Don had an incredible story, and he invited me and Mary-Lynn to hear this story and help him bring his thoughts to life," Dolph said. "And really, maybe on a personal level, deal with his personal issues surrounding the event."
Dolph said hearing Murdock's story was an emotional experience, one that even drove Neil to tears. After hearing about the incident, the trio worked together to make a song, in honor of the little girl who became a hero 28 years ago.
A song, arguably, is the natural choice for Murdock.
"I was always playing guitar and wanted to get into [music]," he said.
He auditioned for a country singer when he was a teen, but it didn't go anywhere. His life moved on, he started a family and became a firefighter, but music still seemed to be the right outlet.
When the three of them started to collaborate, Dolph said the experience was organic.
"Don decided he was going to take a little bit of a break and basically had a guitar, and for whatever reason, some kind of magic happened," he said.
It only took them less than half an hour to compose the music. When they sat down to write the lyrics, they just let the story speak for itself.
"Lyrically speaking, we just followed the storyline as it happened," Dolph said.
The important theme that they both wanted to get across, however, was that as much recognition as Murdock received, he did not want to be called a hero.
"He's not into it for recognition, not into it for money, not into it for whatever. He's into it because he wants to do it — because he wants to help," Dolph said.
The song was fittingly named "Don't Call Me a Hero."
Of course, they wanted to pay homage to the little girl, which is where the bridge of the song came in.
"On that fateful day / God called, an angel away," Murdock sang.
A way to heal
As much as the song is for the memory of the little girl, it has also been a way of healing for Murdock.
"It has been an emotional ride for me. Now that this song is going out there, it's part of the healing process for me," he said. "[The healing process] is still going on right now, but I still remember the traumatic events when you wake up seven or eight years later in the middle of the night and this girl's on your head."
Murdock says he now understands the importance of dealing with something and not keeping it bottled up. He likened it to military personnel returning from war and not dealing with their PTSD, but also the inner-struggle that all responders deal with and hopes that his song speaks to them.
"Everybody's story is the same or similar, but it's different, you know? I'm just hoping all the people that have heard it can relate to it somehow," he said. "Firefighters and paramedics deal with this stuff on a daily basis … we can all sit back as a country and have a lot of respect for these people and the work they do for us on a daily basis."
And even though Murdock says he never kept in contact with the little girl's family or even knows if they live in the area anymore, he is comforted by the fact that he is fulfilling the promise he made her.
He adds that if the song becomes successful he hopes to donate the money to some children's organizations.
Dolph said that "Don't Call Me a Hero" has been picked up for mass distribution in the U.S. and will be part of a compilation CD with other country stars.