Thursday, January 13, 2000

Firefighters recount harrowing rescue
By KIMBERLY LETTEER Democrat Staff Writer
© 2000 Geo. J. Foster Co.


ROCHESTER — It was a rescue that will never be forgotten by the nearly 60 firefighters and dozens of medical personnel who assisted the five people injured in Tuesday’s early morning blaze. Many of the unsung heroes of the night agreed that the three-alarm fire at 19 Summer St. was the largest and most traumatic rescue they ever encountered.

It was difficult for the nearly a dozen firefighters to hide their emotions as they shared their thoughts and memories of Tuesday’s events.

It was a rescue effort in which seconds would make the difference between failure and success. Every job of every emergency person was key to making the successful rescue of a family of four possible. Crews worked together, thinking not of themselves but of those whose lives were at stake.


Lt. Steve Johnson of the Rochester Fire Department was investigating two previous arsons earlier that night at 15 Summer St. when he spotted heavy smoke at a nearby building about 1:15 a.m. The Fire Department was notified and two engines driven by firefighters Steve Plant and Paul Laclair arrived at the home — only 150 feet from the station — within seconds.

Capt. William Hoyt said several people gathered in front of the building and one bystander, a woman, was screaming hysterically. Hoyt was told at least three people still had not been found. "I knew things were going to get real hectic in a hurry," Hoyt said, knowing that people were trapped inside the burning building. Avoiding all rules of thumb, some of the firefighters did not hesitate before entering the three-story structure without hose lines or radio communication.


Johnson and firefighter Jim Jacques entered the front of the building while Hoyt entered the rear. Not knowing that four people were still inside the burning home, the firefighters hurried through smoke, searching for anyone or anything that would lead them to the top floors. They quickly reached the living room on the second floor.

"There is no direction in a smoke-filled room — I had to follow the wall," Hoyt said.

"The frustrating part is that we had no idea there were doors left and right," Hoyt added. "It was so smoky. The frustration and helplessness had hit us."

Searching for a stairwell on the second floor that would lead the firefighters to the top level was the biggest challenge for this crew, officials agreed. Hoyt turned his head and heard a cough. Eventually, Hoyt began to hear several coughs.

A resident of the home, Glen LaCrosse, 39, was walking in circles in the living room on the second floor when Hoyt found him disoriented and suffering from smoke inhalation. Hoyt yelled to his peers that he had found someone, but was unsure how to get out of the room with the victim.


Deputy Chief Fran Zombeck yelled for Hoyt to help lead him out of the smoky room. LaCrosse had been pushed into the arms of firefighter Mark Dupuis before he was taken to Zombeck. Zombeck placed LaCrosse over his shoulder, injuring his own back, and carried him down two flights to safety.

By this time, Hoyt had only two to five minutes of air left and was unsure if others were still inside. Hoyt kept searching for a stairwell to the third floor when he started thinking about his own family. "I was on borrowed time," he said. "I knew it was time to leave." Hoyt heard over his scanner that others had been rescued and that officials believed everyone was out of the building.


Meanwhile, other firefighters were handling their own rescues. Every minute was critical and no mistakes could be made.

Capt. Derek Peters quickly took charge of the water supply. Before venting the roof, Peters walked around a corner of the building and spotted a woman leaning out of a third-story window. A ladder was positioned next to the window and Peters climbed up to rescue 41-year-old Julie Evans, who had suddenly disappeared but then returned.

"I can’t leave without my baby," the crying woman told Peters. Evans had left the window to save her two young children.

After disappearing from the window twice, Peters had to coax the scared mother to leave the home. "We pretty much had to pull her out of the window," he said. While Evans was carried to safety, she frantically told fire officials where to locate her two children trapped on the third floor.


The rescues were still not over and time was critical, officials said. At this point, the two young children had been inside the burning building for about 15 minutes after firefighters first arrived. Firefighters Brian Anderson and Dominick Bellio, and Lt. Marc Avery entered the window in search of the two siblings, who were trapped inside separate rooms. The building was dark and full of smoke.

Anderson quickly found the youngest child, 2-month-old Benjamin LaCrosse, in the same room where the mother had stood. The baby made a "barking" sound and cried immediately when picked up from his crib, Anderson said.

Benjamin was handed to Bellio, who gave the child to Peters. Fortunately, Peters, who carried the baby down the ladder, noticed bubbles from Benjamin’s nose, meaning the child was still breathing. Firefighter and paramedic Don Penny took the child and ran to the ambulance while Frisbie Memorial Hospital paramedics Stephanie Dornsife and Chris Willoughby assisted in addition to police officer Chris Bealand.

"He was breathing — but they were real fragile breaths," Penny said. The child’s mouth was filled with soot when a paramedic opened his airway and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After about two minutes, the child began to scream.

Realizing that every second was crucial and the only ambulance at the fire was about to rush Benjamin to the hospital, Penny acted quickly, grabbing medical supplies from the vehicle. He immediately set up a temporary emergency room in the street supplied with blankets, oxygen and an intravenous bag. Officials prepared for the second child’s rescue.


Mistakes cannot be made when every second counts and lives are on the line.

Walking in circles and searching for an exit, three firefighters remained in the third-story room where the infant and mother were found and looked for the entrance to the hallway. The crews knew that 3-year-old Avaline LaCrosse was trapped in a room across the hall, but they felt lost.

Fear had set in for the three still searching. "I never panicked, but I really wanted to find these children," Anderson said. "I couldn’t see two inches in front of my face and I was so afraid of not finding my way back to the window."

Bellio found his way into the toddler’s room after finding a locked safety gate in the doorway. "I was scared to death," he said. "What we were doing was as bad as it gets. I could only see a full column of gray smoke." Avery followed Bellio into the room and was able to find Avaline. "We had no time left," he said. "It had already been 20 minutes."

"Nothing was more reassuring than when I heard her cough," Avery said. The child was then given to Anderson and handed to Peters at the same window through which both his mother and sister were rescued.

At the bottom of the ladder, the toddler was given to Lt. Ken Chick, who was prepared to run to an ambulance when he stopped and noticed there was no emergency vehicle available. Chick gave Avaline three quick breaths while transferring her into the hands of Penny at the makeshift medical site along the road. Penny then gave the unconscious girl more oxygen. "She was on her way out," Penny said, adding her little heart was beating incredibly slow for a child. Still not regaining consciousness, Avaline was then put into an ambulance that had just arrived and was transported to Frisbie Memorial Hospital.


Paramedics from Frisbie arrived shortly before the 2-month-old infant was brought to them. "The baby was not doing too well and we needed to start on our way to the hospital," said Dornsife, who was on the telephone seeking additional ambulances when the child arrived.

Medical supplies were quickly handed to Penny before the ambulance left for the hospital. After bringing the child to Frisbie, the ambulance turned around and headed back to the fire scene. By this time, additional ambulances had arrived and a Milton ambulance crew helped with the toddler. The parents were treated by firefighters and medical personnel were unaware there was another injured person who was helped out of the home by firefighters, 65-year-old Frank Dubay. "We were in overdrive and our adrenaline was pumping," Dornsife said, adding that she did not quite absorb what was happening until she had time to reflect on the events.

"This tragedy has affected many people emotionally," said Jon Mendenhall of Frisbie, the hospital’s paramedic manager and emergency medical services coordinator. "Although it was a great ending, it was still hard."

The medical group at Frisbie plans on hosting a briefing for all the workers involved in the rescue, including firefighters, police, dispatchers and paramedics. "We count on each other all of the time," Mendenhall said. "All of the training dovetailed into a great team effort."