Postcard from Detroit: Trapped in a Collapse

Detroit Firefighters Alex Rodriguez and Mark Taylor
Detroit Firefighters Alex Rodriguez and Mark Taylor. Photo by Constance York.

By Constance York

Detroit (MI) Firefighter Mark Taylor wasn’t even supposed to be at work October 3, 2019. He was working the first part of the day for a younger guy at his regular house, Engine 33/Ladder 13, in what is considered “Southwest Detroit.” His gear was put away and he was ready to leave, but he hopped on at the last minute when he saw the fire was close and the homes occupied.

He’s that kind of guy.

He’s the kind of guy who’s the president of the Detroit Firefighter Clown Team and the guy who shows up, when he can, for out of town funerals of guys he’s never met. The guy who is devoted to his wife Megan and four kids: Amanda, Kylie, Dominik, and Kain.

With 16 years on and being a third-generation firefighter, he’s still the guy who looks in the mirror in the morning and wonders: “Is today the day?” And yet goes anyway.

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Firefighter Alex Rodriguez, a second-generation firefighter with 5 1/2 years on, was also working that day.

Rodriguez recalls every detail of the call with a rush of anxiety and the kind of adrenaline rush most people avoid.

After all, who wants to remember being buried alive?

“We exited quarters and turned left on Lawndale and as soon as we made that turn, you could see smoke down the street, so we automatically knew we had one,” he said.

The fire came in as an occupied dwelling but was actually in a remodeled vacant that was spreading to an occupied with people inside.

Upon arrival, Taylor and Rodriguez hopped off the rig, broke open their bundle, and flaked out the line while waiting for water.

“The main fire was the one we went into,” Taylor said. “It was rolling.”

They sized up the house and saw that the interior was cleared out. Rodriguez hit it with water through a window and they waited while another arriving engine dumped their monitor into the second floor and roof.

“I opened the handline and knocked down the fire in the main doorway and front room with Taylor and Stewart behind me,” said Rodriguez. “We advanced through the first room and at this time we still saw fire in the second room, back stairwell, and very back common room.”

Rodriguez felt more intense heat in the next room as he entered and took a step back to hit it.

Taylor, backing him up, looked around the room and noticed that it had been worked on—a remodeling of sorts, that left them in a vulnerable position.

“It took me a minute before a realized there wasn’t anything above us,” said Taylor.

“The house was framed up basically,” said Firefighter Gerald Stewart who also worked the fire. “They were making modifications or something.”

Taylor called out to Firefighter Alex Rodriquez that they should move, but he couldn’t even get all the words out before the roof and the second floor dropped on top of them.

“I heard a loud crack from behind my right shoulder and instinctively turned my head slightly to see what it was,” said Rodriguez. “I was met with a very violent push on my right shoulder that I felt immediately and fell down. I believed this to be the floor beam.”

“From the time we got there, until the time it collapsed was about 10 minutes,” said Taylor.

At first, Taylor tried to extricate himself. When he couldn’t, he called out for help, but nobody could hear him on account of his mask, the debris on top of him, and the chaos in the room of other guys yelling for help.

His personal alert safety system (PASS) alarm wasn’t operable, but he didn’t know that because he had grabbed another guy’s air cylinder and jumped on the truck at the last moment. He normally rides the engine.

“It was like a war zone,” said Stewart. Other firefighters were buried, along with Taylor and Rodriguez, but were able to free themselves.

It would be another 13 minutes before Taylor would be dug out.

After being knocked down by the beam, Rodriguez continued to be buried as he lay helpless on the floor. 

“As more and more rubble piled on top, I felt deep pressure on my leg and then it wasn’t there anymore,” said Rodriguez. “This lasted about seven seconds, although it felt a lot longer.”

When the rubble stopped falling, Rodriguez punched a hole in the debris on top of him and vividly remembers seeing clouds above. “It was then I realized the roof and second floor was what had collapsed on us.”

He said a sense of calm came over him as he looked up at the clouds, knowing that guys would be already rushing in to find him.

He also felt cold and realized that the charged line was beneath him and water was running down his back and legs.

Taylor was not that lucky.

Buried and unable to move, he felt firefighters walk over him to extricate Rodriguez as he lay trapped in a bed of burning debris. He felt them crossing back over again as they removed his colleague.

“Right away is the most energy I’m gonna have,” Taylor said he told himself, “so try and get out, because if you can get out, you’re good.”

When he couldn’t, he realized he needed to conserve his air.

“I’m 100 percent helpless. I can’t yell loud enough. I can’t signal to them. I’m just stuck.”

He had his “hook,” a tool he says he made, and with it still in his hand he gave it a turn to lift some of the weight off of him.

“Like, I’m laying on hot coals. It was really uncomfortable,” he said. “I would wiggle, that seemed to help.”

He had to calm himself from the anxiety of being buried as well as from the intense pain.

“This didn’t kill me. I may burn to death, but I’m not gonna kill myself by running out of air,” he told himself. “You gotta dial back the adrenaline.”

Once outside and now in extreme pain after being moved, Rodriguez asked fellow firefighters if Taylor was alright and could tell by their expressions that Taylor was still inside.

“I believed that, as the first person in the house, I should have been the last person removed based on how much further into the house I was,” he said. “I told them if I’m out here and Mark isn’t here too, then he’s still buried inside.”

The other firefighters rushed back in.

What goes through the mind of a trapped and buried firefighter? These were some of Taylor’s thoughts as he heard the room go quiet.   

“How many more guys are trapped? How much shit is on me? How long is it gonna take for them to find me? How long’s it gonna take them to get me out? Is this my time to go? How long will it take before I black out, or run out of air? All that @#&!…ya know. I’m glad I hugged and kissed my wife and kids before I left for work. Try and stay calm, control my breathing. Make sure I have a good seal on my air-piece. My helmet got twisted and knocked my mask off a bit, but my right arm was pinned to my chest, so I was able to reposition it and get a good seal.” 

As far as digging him out, the process went carefully, given that firefighters were not aware of his injuries, and without water.

“We didn’t know Mark was on fire,” said Stewart. “And there was some concern… there have been instances in the past, where guys almost drowned.”

Stewart wouldn’t know Taylor was burned until later.

“It’s always the good guys right?” said Stewart. “He’s just a happy guy. He’s like that fireman that everybody likes. He’s a family man—he does the clown stuff—he’s just a good dude.”

When Taylor was extricated and en route to the hospital, Stewart rode in the ambulance with him and called his wife. As they removed some of his gear, he realized it was worse than he had thought.

“He kept asking for more pain meds saying, ‘it ain’t working.’” Stewart said. “It really sucked.” 

Both Taylor and Rodriguez would be in the hospital for weeks and both were off work for a year that involved many surgeries, grueling rehab, and determination.

Taylor ended up with third degree (or full thickness) burns about 60 percent of his body on his legs, back, left hand, and head. He’s had three surgeries that were each eight hours long. He’s had two skin grafts on his body and a surgery on his scalp where they cut 3/4 of a circle around the back of his head and peeled the scalp back completely off to the front.

Rodriguez had a broken tibial plateau injury. This is when the leg is broken below the knee cap at the very top of the tibia. He came close to losing his leg to amputation. He’s spent a year having additional surgeries and recuperating at home with wife Peggie and kids Kaylee and Logan.

Taylor now has an intense, five-hour a day work-out schedule and has worked with a chiropractor and a nutritionist, along with regular physical therapy throughout. 

Both men realize how much worse it could have been and are grateful.

Aside from the support of family and friends, Taylor credits a couple things with his survival- the fact that he didn’t have inhalation burns and his relatively recent sobriety.

“Being sober helped my recovery,” he said. “But it’s hard.”

“I’m just glad I was off work for a year and didn’t have to eat Rusty’s cooking,” he jokes. “Leave that in—he’ll get a kick out of it.”

“It definitely taught me a lot of @#&!…not just firefighting, but the people we know who came through for my family,” Taylor said.

“It made me realize we have a flaw in our dispatch system. We should have known that the home had burned before- at least twice, maybe three times. Something should populate it. Just advise us. That’s something we would love to see happen. Somebody has to find a way to make that happen.”

Even in the hospital those first agonizing days, Taylor never doubted he would go back to work.

“I don’t mind risking my life for Detroit,” he said. “The possibilities are endless on the good I can still do.”

Constance York is a multimedia journalist from Metro Detroit. She has been documenting the Detroit (MI) Fire Department since around 2002. Check out her Facebook page Detroit on Fire and her YouTube channel.

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