When fire crews arrived at a Mechanicsburg duplex earlier this month, flames already had consumed the back of the building.
The fire was producing very black smoke, forcing Mechanicsburg Fire Chief Gary Neff and his firefighters to move through the building with zero visibility.
Neff was one of the first ones at the home in the 400 block of West Simpson Street at 5:49 p.m. on Aug. 3 and quickly learned one of the tenants had gone back inside in an attempt to rescue a dog.
There was no time to assign the rescue. Neff simply sprang into action himself, finding the man standing just inside the front door. An EMT who was at the scene helped Neff get the tenant out the door before he collapsed.
Neff didn’t consider his efforts heroic, but his quick action helped get the man to medical responders who could treat him right away, an advantage that can’t be underestimated.
Shortly after the first rescue, they learned a second man could still be somewhere else inside the house.
Neff faced a dilemma. There was so much fire in the house, but they had to find out if another man needed help.
He sent crews into the building, still filled with thick blinding smoke, with the mission to suppress the fire and do a systematic search. Firefighters used their hands to feel along the walls because they couldn’t see, doing a sweep of each room as they worked their way around obstacles through the house.
When they made it to the stairs to the second floor, one firefighter felt a man’s feet on the steps.
The firefighter called for the rest of the crew. One of them had to keep steady water on the flames surrounding them to keep the fire in check, while others helped drag the man out of the house, Neff said.
Getting an unconscious person out of a house is not typically what you see on TV or in movies, Neff said. Firefighters don’t usually throw someone over their shoulder in a “fireman carry” way. Instead, they use a “pull drag” most of the time because of the weight and inertia of the body.
“It’s a lot of teamwork,” Neff said. “They’re hard to get ahold of. A limp body just moves as gravity takes it.”
The second they got him to the sidewalk, they started CPR, Neff said.
Because there was a delay in getting ambulances to the scene, the firefighter who first found the fire victim jumped into action in her other role, as an EMT. A couple other firefighters who were also EMTs assisted her along with a neighbor who was an emergency room doctor.
The doctor continued helping even after paramedics arrived and also rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital. The man recovered in a burn center and was released two weeks later.
The man told officials he was awakened by smoke detectors and tried to get out. But he only was able to make it a few feet to the stairs. Neff said that shows just how toxic the smoke was in the building.
Having heard the man’s prognosis and treatment thus far, Neff said the man was close to losing his life.
“It’s so important that he heard the alarm because he was within seconds of death,” Neff said.
As for his home, both units in the duplex sustained extensive damage and were uninhabitable after the fire.
Neff credits two main things to this man’s survival: the smoke alarms in the duplex and his crews’ teamwork.
But neighbors also played a role. As fire trucks were coming to help from all over the region, they faced a borough filled with narrow one-way streets. Neighbors took it upon themselves to block off side streets using their vehicles, trash cans or their own bodies to re-direct traffic around Simpson Street and the connecting alleys, where a total of 19 apparatuses ended up.
In all, at least 50 first responders ended up at the Simpson Street call.
Neff called the neighbors’ efforts “highly unusual” but also incredibly helpful because there already was a delay in getting several fire trucks to the scene because they were at a crash on Interstate-81 that killed two children.
To have a working fire with someone trapped inside isn’t common, but does happen, Neff said. Most of the time, that person is able to get out by themselves.
Firefighters train extensively to do a primary and secondary search of all of burning buildings, just in case someone is trapped inside.
Landlords and residents can do their parts to ensure their homes have working smoke detectors. Mechanicsburg’s rental inspection program helps monitor these devices to make sure they are working.
“I’ve experienced it too many times where there’s a fire alarm, batteries removed. It’s just, that’s always a hard pill to swallow as a firefighter,” Neff said. “Because you usually work so hard to get to somebody. You don’t know if that’s why they perished, but you know it’s a contributing factor.”
On April 10, just after 6:52 a.m., Neff said his crews did lose a man in a fire, despite their “drastic” search efforts. They were not able to reach 63-year-old Howard Motter in his apartment in time at a five-unit building in the 400 block of High Street.
In that case, firefighters later learned the apartment didn’t have working smoke detectors.
Many of the first responders at that fatal fire also worked at the rescue on Simpson Street. One of the paramedics, who had responded to both, came back from the hospital in much higher spirits because the man was expected to survive, Neff said.
“It is a time for joy, it’s a time for appreciation for what the fire department does,” Neff said. “And it is an example of who we are.”
There is still a lot that is unclear about the fire, including the cause. There was also the dog that the first man was trying to go back inside for. Neff said his crews searched repeatedly for the dog, but couldn’t find it.
He hasn’t been able to follow up with that owner, he said, but the hope was that if he wasn’t found, he may have gotten out. Two other dogs were found safe in a garage out back, Neff said.
Neff was grateful for all the help at the Simpson Street fire that resulted in two successful rescues.
He plans to eventually honor the first responders and passersby who participated.
“This was like a big lift,” Negg said. “For a small town to be able to do that, that’s really good stuff.”
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