Trenton firemen honored tonight for dramatic rescue
Monday, January 22, 2007
(The Trentonian)

 TRENTON — The day of Dec. 22, 2006 will live in infamy in Trenton Fire Department history. A basement fire started at 4:01a.m. in a house at 930 Prospect St.

And before it was over three firefighters wound up trapped in the inferno – Christopher Rowe, Ernest “Frank” Wilcox and Todd Willever.

Fighting for their lives, they barely made it out alive, pulled out of the flash-fire in time by three rescuers — Firefighters Keith Quinlan and Mike Burzachiello, and Capt. Robert Tharp. Two others, Firefighters Carlos Otero and Joseph Bryce, assisted.

Signal 22, the volunteers who feed fire fighters and police at two-alarm fires, will honor the rescuers tonight at Freddie’s Tavern, 12 Railroad Avenue, West Trenton.

Capt. Robert Tharp and Bob Hoyer were the teachers here. For the past few years, they have run young firefighters blindfolded through mazes at the Miller Homes and at the Dempster training center.

These are pretend fire “situations” with all of the entanglements and uncertainty and confusion of a live fire.

It was here that they learned about “low-profile” exits from burning buildings through a window. How to take a mask and air pack off, and push through a tiny window alive. How to cut themselves out. How to search for fellow firefighters. How to rescue themselves and how to issue a Mayday.

No, there is no fire, no smoke. Those are left for the reality of awful nights like Dec. 22.

Engine 1, led by Acting Capt. Frank Wilcox with Paul Ressler driving, responded with firefighters Chris Row and Todd Willever. They requested the rest of the first alarm: two more ladders and a rescue company.

“The homeowner was present already and stated that everybody was counted for out of the building,” said Capt. Tharp.

Firefighter Rowe saw this was a basement fire, and said the men went in and began doing their jobs. “I started to go back to the basement where Frank and Todd were at,” he said. “Frank was acting captain that night and I heard him say there must be a kink in the line, because they lost water pressure. He pulled up to me to find out where the kink was.”

Chris Rowe turned around, looking. He saw higher volume of fire coming through the door vents. “I was by the basement door, and felt this high intense heat, and a tingling in my ear,” he said. “And as soon as I felt that I heard guys by the front door yelling to get out.”

“And once I heard them yell to get out, the whole room that I was in just simultaneously lit up on fire – the first floor, and the second floor, just simultaneous, just lit!”

“There were guys who have been on the job for 25-plus years, said they never ever seen anything like that,” he said.

“I was about 10 to 12 feet from the front door,” Chris said. “The only thing I remember was thinking about my family, my two kids, my wife.”

Then he said the training that Capt. Tharp and retired Capt. Bob Hoyer and Battalion Chief Graham Smith had given them kicked in.

“I just remembered – I found the hose line,” said Rowe. “Actually, I laid on top of it; I fell down. Days later, I thought that the only place I could have gone, I found, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been a good situation for me. There was only one spot that wasn’t affected by the complete flashover, and I was able to find it.”

He said Keith Quinlan and Mike Burzachiello knew he was in there. The whole room was engulfed in flames.

“Through the grace of God, they hung at the front door,” Chris Rowe said. “The heat was so intense. They knew I was in there, and they were trying to get in, but the heat was too hot.”

“And I think they said they saw my flashlight, and when I got close enough for them to reach inside the door, they reached in and grabbed me,” he said.

“And next thing I know, I came flying out the house. They pulled me with a lot of velocity. I remember just flying out the front door.”

Quinlan suffered burns to his ears, too. “I sit back and I replay that today in my mind”, said Chris, “and I thank God I’m still here. Supposedly in that situation, without having a hose line in your hand, you normally don’t make it out.”

Down in the basement, Frank Wilcox and Todd Willever seemed doomed. They had gone down there to fight the initial fire, even though all the residents were out, and a reporter had to ask Wilcox, why risk your lives like that? Why not just attack it with water from the outside? Why put yourselves in danger?

“That’s not the way you fight fires,” Frank said. You’ve got to get to the fire itself. And what we saw when we pulled up on the outside, it wasn’t a very big fire.

“So you’ve got to go in there and put it out,” he said, “that’s what we get paid for. The majority of the time when you’re fighting a fire from the outside of a building, you’ve written off the building. And at that point, we weren’t writing off the house.”

“That person, everything they own is in that house. Ninety-nine out of 100 times you can go down there and put the fire right out.”

Todd Willever, 31, was working overtime that night with Wilcox. His wife, Lisa, and their three children, Jessica, 7; Patrick, 6, and Timothy, 1, were asleep in bed at their house in Columbus.

Frank Wilcox said, “Me and Todd went downstairs to put out the fire, and the hose behind us evidently – which we didn’t know about – was burning through, because the fire was burning through one of those heating registers in the floor, the grates.”

“Suddenly, (Battalion Chief Qareed Bashir) told everybody to get out, because the living room was flashing over,” Wilcox said. “It was becoming a pretty serious fire, which we didn’t realize, because we were in the basement.”

“So I told Todd, ‘Just take the line, and let’s go!'”

They went up the steps and turned the corner to come back around into the kitchen to get out of the building.

“And we realized it had flashed over then, and the whole living room and bathroom was on fire, and we had no way out,” Wilcox said.

He told Willever to fight their way out with the water.

“But he goes, ‘We don’t have any water’, I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘We don’t have water.’ I grabbed the nozzle from him and checked, and that’s when I called a Mayday,” Frank Wilcox said.

“That is a word in the fire service you don’t use unless you think you’re in a very, very threatening situation. So I said, ‘There’s a Mayday; we are stuck behind the fire without water.’

“I was expecting that the dispatcher might have cleared the air, and acknowledged the Mayday.” He said that apparently didn’t happen.

Tharp had heard a Mayday only once before in his life.

“When I heard them having that issue,” captain said, “I contacted them on the radio and I told them that there was a safe refuge in the rear of the basement that could get them out.”

Tharp had gone around the building and found the one small window in the entire basement, at the back.

“Believe it or not,” Wilcox said, “that was the only window in the basement that did not have bars. Every other window in the house had bars on it.”

“The smoke was pretty heavy down there,” he said. “You really couldn’t see much. We went towards the sound of their voice.”

Tharp said he talked them back via his radio, and shined his light in.

“When they got to the windows,” Tharp said, “I told them to do an emergency removal of their breathing equipment.”

“They removed the tanks, to cut down the profile of their body,” he explained. “They climbed themselves into the basement window, and myself and Firefighters Carlos Otero and Joseph Bryce pulled them out the windows.”

Frank Wilcox barely made it.

“If we were a couple pounds heavier, we wouldn’t have gotten through that window,” Wilcox said. “I ripped the back of my coat from top to bottom getting out the window.”

“We had to take our masks off our air packs and we had to pass them out first,” he said. “You pass the mask itself out, the bottle, but you keep the mask on your face. So you’re still breathing the air. And then they reached in and they grabbed us all out of there.”

In his 11 years on the job, Wilcox said, “I have actually never seen two floors of a fire building flash over at once. And that’s what they said happened outside.”

“Just remember that heat rises. So heat was going up those walls, and it kind of mushrooms, and the heat starts building from the top of the building down, so it reached ignition temperatures, both floors, at the same time.”