Firefighters rescued after being trapped in burning house

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A bitter winter night, a house fire, a dreaded flashover with two firefighters trapped inside — the last time that nightmare played out in Winnipeg, two veteran firefighters died.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/02/2016 (2482 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A bitter winter night, a house fire, a dreaded flashover with two firefighters trapped inside — the last time that nightmare played out in Winnipeg, two veteran firefighters died.

A flashover happened again overnight Saturday when a wall of fire trapped two firefighters conducting a search of a house in St. James.

The difference this time is both firefighters lived; they were at home resting Saturday after being treated for burns.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press A house fire on Bruce Avenue early Saturday morning that left firefighters trapped inside and needing to be rescued.

Two of four tenants at the house at 126 Bruce Ave. escaped with minor smoke inhalation. The other two tenants weren’t at home at the time.

Tenants said they believed the fire started with electrical wiring in the basement.

The cause of the fire has yet to be confirmed, and the blaze remained under investigation Saturday. Preliminary reports estimated the damage at about $100,000.

The two firefighters were trapped in the basement when the flashover happened. A flashover is a wall of fire that rips like a tide across the ceiling and wraps a structure in instant flames. It’s the thing firefighters fear most.

“That’s one of the most dangerous events in a firefighter’s career,” Alex Forrest, president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg, said Saturday.

“This is similar to what happened on (Place) Gabrielle Roy when we lost the two fire captains. It was a cold night then, too, and there was a similar flashover.”

That house fire in St. Boniface on a bitterly cold night in winter 2007 claimed the lives of 55-year-old Capt. Harold Lessard and 57-year-old Capt. Thomas Nichols.

This time, there was the added complication of wiring in the basement.

“They were entangled in wires when the flashover happened,” Forrest said.

By daybreak, Facebook was flooded with posts from relieved firefighters all over the city who followed Forrest’s social-media updates overnight.

“I can tell you all the firefighters are breathing a sigh of relief today. I’ve been to too many funerals in the line of duty, across North America and here,” he said.

The union leader also credited procedural lessons learned in the 2007 flashover with the lives saved this time.

In the wake of that fatal blaze, Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health agency ordered the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service to improve a range of safety procedures.

The procedures and training following the tragedy on Place Gabrielle Roy made a huge difference Saturday.

“There is a definite connection because after 2007 we put a lot more resources into things such as training, new-building construction, flashovers, mayday accountability — all the things that go into play was developed in the last number of years since Gabrielle Roy,” Forrest said.

Twitter Emergency crews were called to the scene at a one-and-half-storey home in the 100-block of Bruce Avenue at 12:45 a.m.

The use of a “mayday” call, which was utilized during Saturday’s blaze, means everything stops and all focus goes toward a firefighter who is in imminent danger.

Sixty firefighters on duty all over the city responded to the scene, Forrest said.

“Everything on the fire ground stops, and everything that the firefighters are now doing goes to helping the firefighters, rescuing him or her from that situation,” Forrest said.

In the case of Saturday’s fire, a mayday call was made, and firefighters began sending water down into the basement in hopes of creating a safe passage for their trapped comrades.

“They gave it one last try, and lo and behold, they were able to find the stairs with the assistance of the water coming down,” Forrest said.

“And that’s what got out them out.”

The two tenants in the house described smelling smoke just before the home’s smoke alarm sounded.

Both ran to the basement and tried to throw water on the blaze before it got out of control. That didn’t work, and the house filled up with smoke.

The two described a nightmare scenario that left them with minutes to escape the 1 1/2-storey home.

Fire crews arrived to find King Brown outside the house. He had run to a neighbouring home, banging on the door just before 12:30 a.m. and asking the occupants to dial 911.

The other tenant, David DeGagne was dialing 911 on his cellphone inside his truck, where he’d taken shelter.

Both were gripped with fear a third tenant, Tom, was trapped inside the basement where the fire started.

“One of the firefighters went in to double-check, search and rescue, to make sure nobody was in there. I heard his respirator fell off and he had an emergency situation,” said Brown, describing the moments before the flashover.

DeGagne said he knew something was terribly wrong when he saw paramedics race towards the house with a stretcher.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Two residents of 126 Bruce Ave., King Brown (left) and David DeGagne, talk to police officers after Saturday's fire.

“You think the worst, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they found Tom,” DeGagne recalled.

The stretcher was for one of the firefighters, the tenants said.

Tom was later found at the home of a friend. The fourth tenant was at his girlfriend’s place.

Brown escaped with the clothes on his back but no way to contact family in Ontario. His cellphone was in the upstairs bedroom.

DeGagne managed to grab an overnight bag with clothes he’d packed for a weekend trip. Both expected to spend Saturday night in hospital, where medical staff offered them beds and set up an emergency appointment with social services workers.

Most of the night, the quiet suburban area was lit with flashing lights, fire crews and police converging at the scene after the mayday call went out, one neighbour reported.

Beverley Swan said she and another neighbour stood outside for an hour or more in the bitter night, despite temperatures that dropped to about -30 C.

“It was very scary. Very scary,” she said in an interview at her home across the street.

“The firemen put up a ladder and smashed the little bedroom window in the loft, and tons of smoke poured out.”

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

kristin.annable@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Sunday, February 14, 2016 12:15 AM CST: Updated story.

Updated on Sunday, February 14, 2016 9:11 AM CST: Corrects typo.

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