Reading Eagle, Pa.
Oct. 19—Firefighters are never truly off duty, according to Tim Dierolf.
Even if they don’t have their truck or gear when they happen upon an emergency scene they’ll be quick to help however they can, he said.
And that’s what the volunteer firefighter from Boyertown did recently on Elm Street in Reading, where he guided two people from a smoke and flame filled row home onto a roof and helped save their lives.
Dierolf, 60, a former Reading firefighter, was headed to the NAPA Auto Parts store on North Fourth Street for his job when he smelled smoke in the neighborhood Oct. 12 about 11 a.m.
“I knew there was a fire, and that I was real close,'” he said.
So Dierolf got back in his car and found the fire fast. A three-story home at 407 Elm St. had smoke pouring from the downstairs windows due to a kitchen fire, he said.
Dierolf gave this account:
He called 9-1-1 as he parked, ran to the house and began pounding on the doors to help get everyone out. He alerted the neighbors to get out as well.
Dierolf saw a woman leave the burning home, then a man, but both kept going back in to help others still inside.
Because neither spoke English, it was difficult for Dierolf to communicate to them how dangerous it was to reenter, but he showed them his phone so they could see he’d called 9-1-1 and used hand signals to urge them to stay outside as help was on the way.
A third person came out of the house — a man wearing a black shirt — and he spoke a little English.
“I told him he can’t go back inside. He could never hold his breath that long,” Dierolf said.
Dierolf learned from him that a man and woman were still on the third floor. Dierolf knew that if they opened the door from that third floor and tried to come down the interior stairs, they’d quickly be overcome with smoke and deadly gases.
“I told him they wouldn’t survive, and I told him that I’m a firefighter so I know what I’m talking about,” he said.
Dierolf told the man in the black shirt to yell up at the couple from outside the back of the house to the third-story window that they must instead climb out onto the second-floor roof.
“I told him he had to make that happen,” Dierolf said. “Time was of the essence.”
The man did convince them to get out on the roof, and from there Dierolf directed them to a connected roof on the neighbor’s house where they’d be farther from the fire.
Reading firefighters were on scene just a few minutes after Dierolf called it in. Because they couldn’t get a ladder truck to the rear of the home they used an extension ladder to bring the man and woman down from the roof.
They were treated at the scene but did not go to the hospital, nor did anyone else from the fire.
Firefighters controlled the fire within about 10 minutes of arriving on scene, and made sure the house was clear of anyone else.
Dierolf said he never got the names of those he helped. But the man in the black shirt hugged him and thanked him once everyone was out. Dierolf was thankful for his help as well.
“I’m just glad I was there, because if they (the couple on the third floor) had opened that door, the black smoke would have killed them,” Dierolf said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Dierolf is a driver and pump operator for Boyertown Fire and Rescue, and has been a firefighter for 42 years, having served from 1978 to 2001 as a volunteer in Reading while he was living in the city.
After leaving the scene of the Elm Street fire, Dierolf went right back to his job as a fleet service mechanic for LGL Cable in Reading, helping a co-worker who’d been waiting for him to change a tire, he said.
Later when his family and co-workers asked him whether he’d heard there was a house fire in the city, he shared his story with them.
The home sustained major damage made worse by the fact that it was apparently being used as an illegal rooming house and therefore without the required safety measures in place, according to the city fire marshal’s office.
Fire Marshal Jeremy Searfoss said the cause of the fire will remain undetermined because the kitchen where it started was too gutted to tell what happened.
The home is deemed uninhabitable due to that damage and the fact that it was illegally converted, he said.
The homeowner was listed on the Berks County parcel search page as Dario P. Abreu, who could not be reached for comment.
Searfoss said the homeowner will be mailed a letter from the city informing them that their use of the property as a rooming house was illegal and that they now have to restore or demolish the damaged building.
The incident shows why Reading has zoning laws and codes in place, though, as the fire likely would not have spread as quickly or been as potentially deadly had the conversion been done properly, Searfoss said.
“Making illegal modifications put people’s lives in danger,” he said. “The codes are there for a reason.”
Searfoss also spoke about how important it was to have a trained firefighter in Dierolf on scene so quickly.
The interior staircase in row homes can act as a chimney, sending smoke and poisonous gas upstairs, which means the couple on the third floor was in serious danger, he said.
“His (Dierolf’s) advice that they heeded probably saved them from being seriously injured or killed,” he said.
Searfoss praised the city firefighters on scene as well, saying they quickly had water on the flames and kept the fire from spreading, which he said is typical of how they perform.
‘Calm under pressure’
The incident commander during the fire was Deputy Chief Tom Kemery, who happens to be Dierolf’s friend, his ex brother-in-law and chief of the forestry service unit in Reading on which Kemery serves as a deputy.
Kemery said Dierolf’s actions at the scene were consistent with the type of man and firefighter he is — knowledgeable and calm under pressure.
And Kemery agreed that Dierolf likely saved lives that day, both by preventing residents from returning to the building and guiding the couple from the third floor.
“They’d have never made it down those stairs,” Kemery said.
Dierolf said he never thought twice about jumping into action when he saw the fire. He said firefighters often provide help when off -duty, and that he had done so himself numerous times previously.
“You can’t take the time to run to the firehouse and back when every second counts,” he said.
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