My Mistakes May Save Your Life

Severen Henderson gives a harrowing first-person account of his Mayday and what you can do so it won’t happen to you.

February 19, 2021: It was a regular shift day on the second shift, and I was preparing to work my 48-hour tour at the Chicago (IL) Fire Department. When I came in that morning, I asked where the crew wanted me to set up my gear for the day. I was informed to set up on the Snorkel1 on the passenger side.

Everything was routine about the morning: I did my gear checks and made sure everything was in place—the same routine I conduct every morning. I first checked my mask to make sure that it was good to go. I did the full check—took the mask apart and inspected all the components and O-rings. I then changed the battery on my radio and made sure all my fire gear was ready to go. I made sure to take the person from the shift day before me off and give him his personal belongings.

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Mayday, Mayday, Mayday…

When I come in, I usually wear street or civilian clothes. That way, when I return home from duty, I don’t take any potential germs from the firehouse home. I have a family and kids, and I do not want them to get sick.

After my gear check, I went upstairs to my locker to change into my station clothes. I have a few personal items that I like to carry in my clothes—a small pocketknife and a seat belt cutter with a window punch.

With the ladder still deployed, crews go defensive on the fire from an adjacent lawn.

(1) With the ladder still deployed, crews go defensive on the fire from an adjacent lawn. (Photos by Tim Olk.)

 A view of the structure from the C/D side alley. Fire is still blowing through the roof.

(2) A view of the structure from the C/D side alley. Fire is still blowing through the roof.

A view from the C/D section of the building with crews using the hoseline defensively.

(3) A view from the C/D section of the building with crews using the hoseline defensively.

An example of just how high the snow was in the area of the alley. This is a defensive attack from the C/D section of the building.

(4) An example of just how high the snow was in the area of the alley. This is a defensive attack from the C/D section of the building.

After getting station dressed, I went downstairs to hang out with the crew and see what the plans for the day were. I signed the book for my mask and radio. By signing the book, I knew that I was showing that I would be responsible for the equipment that I signed for, for that shift.

That’s when the call for a fire came in. I remember the address being 27th and South Lowe. I recall thinking of the best way to get there because even though I wasn’t the driver that day, I am in the rotation, and I want to be as prepared as I can for each call. I then do what we usually did and got dressed and jumped on the rig.

The Box got a pretty big jump on us and made it out the firehouse a bit faster, but again, that’s okay, because we knew where we were going. As my partner, Firefighter Steve Williams, drove, I controlled the siren and listened for any extra or unusual radio traffic. I can’t recall any remarkable traffic that stood out on this call. We got off on 31st and drove down to South Lowe, turned, and prepared to go to work on the fire.

I knew, since we were in the Snorkel, our job would to (1) be partners, (2) head to the rear of the building and go to the roof to assist companies with cutting a hole, and (3) do any other tasks necessary to bring the fire under control. When I first got off the rig, I made sure that all my gear was in place and grabbed some tools—a halligan bar and a New York-style pike pole.

As I walked up to the address, I saw a family sitting inside the address, and they looked fine—they looked perfectly normal and didn’t look to be having an emergency. At the same time, on arrival and while walking up, we saw and smelled smoke that was obviously from a structure.

I looked to the back where the smoke was coming from, and I saw a “coach house.” As I walked to the coach house, which looked to be a 2½-story wood-frame building, I said to the chief standing in front of the building, “Squad 1 is here. What do you need?” The chief answered that no one had checked the basement yet. I then said to him, “I got you.”

At this time, I saw the A side of the building and walked down the gangway on the B side to get to the rear to check the basement. While walking through the gangway/alley of the structure, I remember snow being up to almost my hips. The city was still cold and had snow left over from a snowstorm.

I remember that as I walked down the B side of the building, windows were being taken out. Smoke, glass, and debris were coming from the windows, so I remember trying to walk past through the snow quickly so that I wouldn’t get hit with anything coming from the windows.

An example of how high the snow was in the front of the building.

(5) An example of how high the snow was in the front of the building.

This shows the instability of not only the roof but of the structure overall. You can see fire still burning inside of the home.

(6) This shows the instability of not only the roof but of the structure overall. You can see fire still burning inside of the home.

A view from the B side of the structure shows the building’s overall instability while the fire continues to burn.

(7) A view from the B side of the structure shows the building’s overall instability while the fire continues to burn.

A ladder is still deployed on the B side of the structure while crews fight the fire from a defensive position.

(8) A ladder is still deployed on the B side of the structure while crews fight the fire from a defensive position.

A view from the B/C section of the structure in the alley.

(9) A view from the B/C section of the structure in the alley.

A view from the A side of the structure. Although smoke is covering it here, there is a section along the B side that could be walked down. Snow was up to my hips as I made it down this “gangway.”

(10) A view from the A side of the structure. Although smoke is covering it here, there is a section along the B side that could be walked down. Snow was up to my hips as I made it down this “gangway.”

I walked up about four concrete stairs to get to the alley and the C side of the building. Before that, I saw a glass screen door lying flat that I picked up so no one would slip on it. I stood the door on the B side of the house out of the way near one of the windows taken out. I also remember seeing one of the members of my company, the driver of the Box that day, go in the back or C side. I then went into the enclosed back porch of the structure. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my original partner Williams speaking to a chief in the rear of the building.

In this enclosed porch area, there were two options of travel. You could go to the left and go into the first floor, or you could go to the right and head down about three stairs to a closed basement door. Since I told the chief that I would check the basement, I would go right.

I then saw a firefighter with orange stickers on his helmet (these are the newer members of the departments, what Chicago calls “candidates”) and asked him, “Do you have a line?” He said yes and that the line would be ready. He had a hoseline in his hand that looked to be charged, just not stretched to the length necessary to enter the fire. While he was getting the line ready, I attempted to do a quick check of the basement. In my mind, I planned to check the basement for possible victims and then rejoin my partner.

I opened the basement door, and there was a vast, sudden rush of brownish, yellowish smoke that took up the entire space of the door and came out. I then closed the door, got fully masked up, and entered the basement. Out of the corner of my eye, I still saw the firefighter getting the line ready to enter.

Crews battle the fire defensively from the A side.

(11) Crews battle the fire defensively from the A side.

The instability of the building from the D side alley. The instability of the chimney is what stands out.

(12) The instability of the building from the D side alley. The instability of the chimney is what stands out.

Conditions became so bad so fast that crews had to bail off the roof, leaving behind their equipment and tools.

(13) Conditions became so bad so fast that crews had to bail off the roof, leaving behind their equipment and tools.

A view from the “gangway” with water now coming up high to the firefighters.

(14) A view from the “gangway” with water now coming up high to the firefighters.

I went into the basement with my tool, and I remember that the ceiling was so low that the pike pole that I brought wouldn’t fit, so I left it at the door. I first checked behind the door that I opened and found nothing. Then I entered and let my halligan bar hit the left wall while I searched. I ran into another wall in front of me and made another turn. It was hot in the space but not hotter than at any other fire. Then, all of a sudden, it went from hot to microwave hot. The heat just got intense. That’s when I thought I had found the primary source of the fire.

I then turned around and yelled, “Hey, you got that line?” to which I heard nothing in return. The entire time it was getting hotter and hotter. I had no line and what I felt was no real sense of direction.

At this time, I called on my radio, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” and waited for a response. I heard radio traffic but nothing to acknowledge me.

I tried again, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I’m in the basement!” Again, I didn’t hear an acknowledgment of my call. This is where I became terrified, and this was when I made one of many mistakes.

I took off my glove to reach into my bunker coat, better to feel with my bare hand my pushing the button on the radio. I did this. After all, I didn’t think with my gloved right hand that I was pushing the button because I wasn’t getting an answer. With my glove off and knowing for sure now that I was pushing the button, I called again, “ Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I’m burning up!” Still no response. I threw my glove on the best that I could and laid down as flat as I could because I knew that I had to get low or at least that getting low would help me some. The pain from burning was intense in what I felt was multiple areas—my face, my ears, and my neck were all not just tingling but hurting at this point.

While lying flat, I thought to myself, “No one is coming. I’m going to have to fight.” I still had my bar in my hand, so I swung it as hard as I could so that I would possibly hit something that would give me a better idea of where I was. I do not know what I hit, but it was solid.

I then thought that if I came in and made two lefts, maybe if I reversed that I could find my way out. So that’s what I tried. Eventually, I found the stairs that I came down and that were clear before. I rushed up to them as fast as I could, and once I saw daylight, I pulled my mask off as fast as I could. I laid at the top of the steps trying to catch my breath. Some of the other firefighters helped pull me off the steps, and I laid on the ground in the alley. I looked over my shoulder and saw the entire first floor catch fire and blow out like a blowtorch.

(15) Where the hole in the roof was initially cut before crews had to bail off the roof.

Defensive operations show some of the conditions firefighters had to operate in.

(16) Defensive operations show some of the conditions firefighters had to operate in.

This view from the alley shows just how bad snow conditions were.

(17) This view from the alley shows just how bad snow conditions were.

Firefighters work in snow conditions to bring the fire under control.

(18) Firefighters work in snow conditions to bring the fire under control.

Snow accumulation around a fire hydrant. This is a glimpse of the conditions that crews had to overcome to bring this fire under control.

(19) Snow accumulation around a fire hydrant. This is a glimpse of the conditions that crews had to overcome to bring this fire under control.

By this time, an ambulance was coming down the alley to get me. I got up the best I could and got onto the cot. There was some trouble getting me down the alley through all the snow, so I offered to walk. The crew told me no and that they had me, which they did. While being wheeled away, I heard someone over the radio call me, and I replied, “This is Severen, Squad 1. I’m on the cot. I’m out.”

I was taken to Rush Emergency Room initially but was transferred to Stroger Cook County (a Trauma 1 hospital) because of my smoke inhalation and burn injuries. All of this was a blur.

That’s my story as far as the fire. I was intubated. I don’t remember where it hurt, but I remember that it hurt, and it seemed terrible. That is the end of my story. I hope someone can learn from my mistakes. I know there were many mistakes, but the ones that stick out in my mind are as follows:

  • When I first saw my partner, I should have told him my plan. That would have at least given someone besides one other firefighter information as to where I was, where I was going, and what I planned to do.
  • When I noticed that the firefighter I was requesting to help me had orange stickers, I should have done an extra check to make sure that he at least had an officer with him. Although candidates come to the field fully trained to perform the job of being a firefighter, they don’t always have the experience necessary to recognize when problems arise.
  • I would have made more certain that a line was in place to do what we had to do once the fire was found. I also could have used that line to get out of the fire easier.
  • When I saw that big push of smoke come through the basement door, I should have realized that the fire was into the structure and could have possibly been a basement fire.
  • I shouldn’t have taken my glove off.

Again, I’m sure there are more mistakes that I made, but these are the ones that I hope can save a life in the future.

Endnote:

1. In Chicago, the Snorkel is the second of two apparatus that respond as one company called “the Squad”; the lead apparatus is called “the Box.” The official names for both apparatus are as follows: Squad 1 = the Box, Squad 1A = the Snorkel. Squad 1 carries four firefighters including the officer, and Squad 1A carries two firefighters—neither is an officer. Chicago operates a total of four Squad companies that each carry six firefighters. The lead apparatus of the Squad (“the Box”) carries special rescue equipment and has a winch on the front, while the Snorkel has an articulating boom that goes as high as 55 feet and sprays water when hooked up to an engine.


Severen Henderson is a firefighter with Chicago (IL) Fire Department Squad 1. He is the author of the book Hey New Guy! The Candidate’s Guide to a Long Strong and Healthy Career, available on Amazon.

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