Mayday: Mass. firefighter falls through floor at fire

While battling the fire, Lt. Thomas Curtis fell through the third floor and and reported he was trapped near a closet


By Marie Szaniszlo
Boston Herald

METHUEN, Mass. — The mayday came minutes after firefighters arrived at a 3-alarm blaze that’s believed to have started about 9 p.m. Thursday with an overloaded extension cord in the bedroom of a second-floor apartment at 11 Ashton Place in Methuen. One of them was trapped — and running out of air.

A rapid intervention team trained specifically to rescue firefighters was en route from Salem, N.H. But time was running out for Lt. Thomas Curtis, a 57-year-old father of four who has been a firefighter for 29 years. Luckily, Lt. Michael Hughes was nearby.

Curtis: “I turned, took a few steps and broke right through the floor. I was wedged up to my thighs, with the fire underneath me, so that my legs were dangling in the flames. And I was running low on air. My adrenalin kicked in, and I called ‘Mayday!’ over the radio.”

Hughes: “I was on the third floor, searching for tenants, but not finding any, when I heard the mayday — something you never want to hear. I thought of the two Boston firefighters who were killed (in 2014 in the Back Bay). But we train for it, so you’re very focused when you hear it on the radio. I recognized (Curtis’) voice, so I had a good idea who I was looking for and I knew what floor he was on.”

Curtis: “We adapt to anything that happens, but when you’re stuck in a floor that’s on fire, it’s pretty scary. I was trying to get unstuck, and it seemed like an eternity. Once I got out, I didn’t know where I was.”

Hughes: "It was pretty smoky, but firefighter David Rule and I followed the hose line and found him in the kitchen area of the apartment where the fire started. He was sitting on the floor, and somehow I think he got disoriented. I grabbed him and said, ‘Let’s go!’ He walked, but was unsteady, so I walked him down the hallway and down the stairs."

“There was a lot of smoke, but I had on a self-contained breathing apparatus, and I was able to see the hose and the way out. I just held on to him the whole way. Luckily, it worked out well. Then me and Dave Rule went back inside and started fighting the fire in that room. Lt. Curtis had knocked down most of it. The visibility was zero, and in less than a half hour we were ordered to evacuate the building. In the end, it all worked out. I know people lost a lot of property and it’s Christmastime, but you can replace clothing and items.”

Curtis: “In about 20 minutes, I went back into the building. My guys were in there, and I wanted to get back to work. I’ve been in a lot of fires, but this was the most dangerous. We really don’t think of ourselves as heroes. We’re here to help our community. We’re just doing our job. I’m just glad all the residents got out, and no one was seriously injured.”

About 50 people, including six children, were left homeless by the fire. To help the victims, drop off a check made out to City of Methuen at the Methuen Fire Department or the Methuen Police Department, or go online at www.debbiestreasurechest.org.

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