Firefighters: A lifeline between fire and victim

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   You have to wonder about folks who earn their living, or volunteer their free time, by strapping on a Scott Air Pack and dashing inside a burning building. Most times, they have no idea what kind of dangers await them.
   Such was the case Tuesday when members of Elizabethton Fire Department responded to a rolling fire at 420 Railroad St., involving three businesses dealing with automotive repair and sales. When the call first was dispatched, firefighters were told there might be individuals trapped inside. Luckily, that was not the case, and only one person was treated for smoke inhalation.
   Fire Chief Mike Shouse said smoke inhalation was just one of the dangers during the fire which consumed Precision Collision Repair, Scotty's Auto Sales, and Tri-Cities Alignment.
   "You have so much stuff that's located in a repair shop like this, even though it's not in huge quantities. You have oils, paint thinners, paint, all kinds of lubricating stuff" which can create toxic fumes. There also is a danger of explosion.
   "They did have some acetylene cutting torches in there. It doesn't appear at this time that they exploded, but I have to get in there and look at those a little better," Shouse said Tuesday.
   Shift Capt. R.L. Hambrick, dressed in yellow turnout gear blackened from nearly two hours of firefighting, stood in front of Precision Collision Repair watching for a rekindle. He said firefighting, "for an old man, is pretty tough. I was hoping I could get out of here before I saw another bad fire -- but I didn't."
   Danny Sams, who will retire soon, was asked why he battles the flames. "You've got to work for a living. Four more months and I'm out of here though."
   With flames licking at their heels and black clouds of smoke reducing visibility to "zero," what do firefighters think about when they're attempting a rescue or watching the fire creep over their heads?
   "You've got such a rush going, it's hard to explain what goes through your mind," said Dennis "Taz" Erwin. You're just seeing what's going on and you react to whatever's happening. You don't really think about a whole lot of anything."
   Asked whether he sometimes gets afraid, Erwin said, "Yes. Anybody that says they don't is lying."
   Sams sat on one of the city's fire engines trying to cool down and catch his breath after using up three tanks of oxygen in his nearly 50-pound pack. The air tanks, he said, are supposed to last about 30 minutes. "At a time like this, they last about 20-25 minutes. You breathe a little heavier when you're working."
   Tuesday's fire was so intense, he said, "Nobody could go in there at first. No way. The doors fell in front of us.
   "You go in and you can't see nothing -- that's what's scary, he said."
   The auto repair business requires the use of chemicals which could be a potential risk to firefighters.
   "You don't know what's inside the building and you don't go into the fire," Sams said. "Everybody stayed outside until we got it knocked down some. There wasn't no need going in -- nobody was in there. It's only a building; it can be built back. Lives can't."
   Hambrick said that during the fire he heard some explosions inside the building. "It was probably gasoline or bottles of something -- nothing real dangerous, I don't reckon. Hope not."
   He, too, admits he gets scared walking into a burning building. "If you don't you're crazy. But you just use your training, what you've learned over the years, and keep your head where it's supposed to be and you should be all right unless something out of the ordinary happens.
   "I just thank God that everybody's safe. They told us they had a couple of people trapped, but they got them out. That's great. You just don't want nobody hurt," Hambrick said.
   The city's new turnout gear purchased with federal grant money received a workout Tuesday. "We've got two sets. When we get back, we'll start cleaning on this and we'll go back to our old ones until we get these cleaned up.
   "You've got to clean them because you get hazardous stuff settling on them and you might go into another fire and it flame up on you," he said.
   Howard McAninch of the city fire department made sure hoses were hooked to hydrants on. Steve Murray of the city fire department kept a steady stream of water flowing from a pumper to those in the heat of the fire. Murray and Howard McAninch said hoses were stretched across the four-lane highway at the corner of Cherokee and West Elk Avenue and the corner of Holly and West Elk.
   "You have to maintain an adequate amount of water flowing through the hose," Murray said. The truck itself, with all of its shiny gauges, is "not hard to operate. You just have to watch what you're doing."