“It took every ounce of energy and strength not to jump off that building, to get everybody off, and to continue moving down that ladder. And when I fell and I was burning, I sure felt like I wanted somebody to turn those lights off and let me go in peace,” said Los Angeles City, CA Local 112 member Victor Aguirre. “But as fire fighters, we never give up no matter how bad it hurts. We keep on fighting for that survival and recovery.”
Aguirre was at the John P. Redmond Health and Safety Symposium / Dominick F. Barbera EMS Conference in New York to discuss how he and his crew survived the Mayday incident thanks to training like the IAFF’s Fire Ground Survival program and how fire fighters can take the lessons learned from the incident and be safer on the job.
The Los Angeles City Local 112 member was among the fire fighters called out to a report of smoke coming from a commercial building on Boyd Street on May 16, 2020. As the fire fighters were working the fire, they were directed to exit the building after hearing a hissing sound. They were unable to clear the building before a huge explosion occurred.
A Mayday was issued with multiple fire fighters still inside. There were also fire fighters on the roof making their way down using the aerial ladder truck. As they did, they were engulfed by smoke and flames. Eleven fire fighters were burned and transported to the hospital for treatment.
“I don’t think it was luck. It was the training and the support from my union that helped us survive,” said Aguirre. “And we survived the recovery too. I have had 36 surgeries with about 10 more to go, but I made a pact with the others who survived that we were not going to let behavioral health overwhelm us. None of us were going to be lost to suicide.”
General Secretary-Treasurer Frank Líma, a proud member of Local 112, was 10th District Vice President at the time.
“You ask yourself a lot of questions on the way to the hospital. Who was there? Are we going to have multiple line-of-duty deaths?” recalled Líma. “We have a dangerous job. Victor put his crew ahead of his own safety and he got them all out. Then my team and I showed up at the hospital to help him and the other 10 that were injured. And we never left their side.”
Local 112 President Freddy Escobar said he remembers the call well. “Dispatch called saying we had a potential 10-14 LODD. We all just tried to keep calm as we headed into the city to see what was happening,” he said. “I am proud that Brother Aguirre not only survived this incident, but he has challenged himself to make the fire service better.”
Uniformed Firefighters Association Local 94 member Brendan Cawley had been on the job 35 days when he was called out to a fire in the Bronx on January 23, 2005, that resulted in a Mayday.
A challenging fire began on the illegally subdivided third floor of an apartment building. Snow-covered streets hindered fire apparatus navigation, and freezing temperatures rendered the nearest hydrant inoperable.
The partitions made it difficult to access a fire escape, fire fighters inside were running out of air, and conditions inside were rapidly deteriorating.
“This isn’t going to happen to my mother again,” said Cawley, whose brother died on Sept. 11. “The training from the fire academy was all that I was bringing to the fire. And that is what I used as I was trying to exit the building out of the window.”
Cawley was one of six who jumped from the building. Two fire fighters, John Bellew and Curtis Meyran were killed, and Cawley and the three others were severely injured.
“I have several surgeries and that freight train of post-traumatic stress hit me pretty hard. But my fire fighter family, the FDNY, and my union connected me with some help. With all of that help, I was able to return to Truck 27 three years after that fire,” he said. “I know how lucky I am to be alive so I tell my story to probies and others, hoping something I say will help them stay safe on the job.”
Worcester, MA Local 1009 member Jay Menard died Nov. 13, 2019, on a Mayday call, but not before saving the lives of two fellow fire fighters.
Menard and several other fire fighters, including then Local 1009 President Mike Papagni were called out to a fire on Stockholm Street. They arrived to heavy fire and a report of someone trapped inside. And as the fire advanced, a second fire started on the porch.
The fire fighters separated into two teams to fight each fire. That worked well until wind blew through the house, causing the fire to grow too big too quickly. Now, Menard and two others were trapped by a wall of fire, so he called a Mayday.
But Menard didn’t have time to spare, so he pushed one fire fighter out of the third-floor window and got the second down the stairs. And before he could follow, he succumbed to the conditions of the fire.
Papagni then put on his hat as Local 1009 president. Joined by other union leaders, he was in the Menard family’s kitchen promising to take care of them for the rest of their lives.
“We were taken to task almost immediately as the city said they could not pay someone who is no longer alive. But it would be January before Maynard’s death benefits through his pension would start sending checks to the family,” said Papagni. “We had to do something.”
The union leaders had a connection to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which helps provide mortgage-free homes to the families of fallen fire fighters. Hearing Menard’s story, the foundation agreed to pay off the rest of the Local 1009 member’s mortgage.
Papagani said he hopes the takeaway from Menard’s story is for fire fighters at Redmond to “take home what you learn. Fight for better staffing, resources for post-traumatic stress, and training. Make sure you don’t have to be in the kitchen.”
Chairman of Tunnel to Towers Foundation Frank Siller, whose brother Stephen – a member of FDNY’s Squad 1 – died on Sept.11, was also at Redmond. General President Edward Kelly and General Secretary-Treasurer Líma presented Siller with an honorary IAFF membership recognizing Tunnel to Towers work for IAFF families.
“My oath to fire fighters is that the Tunnel of Towers will always be there for anyone who needs it,” said Siller.