Death shows dangers of firefighting

January 22, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

Colleagues of Keith Hess, the Shippensburg firefighter who died Monday from injuries sustained fighting a fire, probably will never get over the tragedy that claimed the life of their friend, the chief of a Jefferson County (W.Va.) fire department said Tuesday.

Ed Smith, chief of Independent Fire Co. in Charles Town, W.Va., remembers the date, time and details Jan. 29, 1975, when Raymond Hufnagel, 39, died in the line of duty in a fertilizer factory fire in Ranson, W.Va.

Smith said he and other firefighters were inside the building trying to get at the fire in the basement when Hufnagel came in to help.


"He fell through the floor into the fire," Smith said.

"Those guys will remember the date and time, too," Smith said of Hess' fellow firefighters in Shippensburg. "They'll never forget it."

Hess, 22, died after a part of the structure collapsed and he suffocated, Franklin County Coroner Jeff Conner said. The fire was essentially out in the two-family home in Blairs Mills, Pa., near the Franklin County line, when Hess went in to help put out hot spots, firefighters said.

The home was vacant at the time.

Whether anyone is trapped in a burning building is a factor that officers in charge at fires consider in deciding to send firefighters into a burning building, Tri-State area fire officials said Tuesday.

"The way I evaluate it is if we know there are people trapped in the building then we do all we can to get them out," Dale Fishack, chief of the Waynesboro (Pa.) Fire Department said. "We'll take extra risks in that case."

He said it's hard for firefighters to hold back if they know people are trapped inside a burning building.

"But as the officer in charge, I have to look at a lot of things - the volume of fire and how long it's been burning, the extent of damage to the building and if it's in danger of collapse," Fishack said.

If fire is coming out of every window and common sense tells firefighters that no one inside has a chance of being alive, they won't go in, Fishack said.

He and two Waynesboro firefighters had a close call in a house fire Jan. 7 when the room they were in flashed over. Two of the three suffered burns.

"It happened so fast we didn't see it coming," Fishack said. "Until it flashed, it was an ordinary fire. Fire is like an animal. You never know when it's going to turn on you."

"The danger is always there," said William Dubbs, chief of the Chambersburg (Pa.) Fire Department.

Many modern buildings are constructed with light roof trusses that add to the hazard of fighting a fire, he said.

"They collapse in just a few minutes," Dubbs said. "It's something that as the officer in charge that I have to look for."

Dubbs said another danger is the existence of carbon monoxide created during a fire.

Steve Canby, acting chief of the Martinsburg (W.Va.) Fire Department, said deciding to send people into a burning building is always a judgment call.

"You have to play all the factors to decide if you're going in or you're going to fight a defensive fire from the outside," Canby said.

"We always try to make an interior attack if we can," he said. "The quicker you get to the fire and get it out, especially if someone is trapped inside, the better you are."

Rick Kipe, acting chief of the Hagerstown Fire Department, said there are many variables to consider when commanding a fire scene. "It's strictly your judgment," he said.

"If a structure shows obvious signs of stress from a fire or looks like it's in imminent danger of collapse and there's no one inside then you don't go in," said Capt. Steve Eby of the Maugansville Goodwill Volunteer Fire Co.

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