A firefighter fell through a roof into a central Fresno garage while battling a two-alarm house fire Sunday afternoon, prompting a frantic rescue by fellow firefighters and several good Samaritans.
The firefighter was in critical condition Sunday evening at Community Regional Medical Center, Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis said at a news conference outside the hospital. One-third of the department’s personnel turned out to support the severely injured man, Donis said, noting that more would be there if they weren’t busy working.
Donis said the firefighter was in surgery. Department spokesman Pete Martinez said he had second- and third-degree burns on 65% to 75% of his body; Donis said 40% of those burns were third-degree. She said she’s confident in the CRMC burn-unit doctors.
Donis said the firefighter is a 25-year veteran of the department. She declined to name him, citing deference to his family.
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Pete Flores, president of Fresno Firefighters’ Local 753, spoke of the close bond many of the local firefighters had with the man.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that individual trained most of us here,” Flores said, drawing a solemn nod from more than two dozen firefighters behind him. “I’ve trained with him as well.
“There’s a lot of experience and knowledge, so to see someone like that suffer these injuries is pretty detrimental to our family.”
Donis said the firefighter’s wife and daughter were at the hospital.
The fire call came at 1:23 p.m. and the first engine arrived three minutes later at the house on Cortland Avenue just west of Manchester Shopping Center and reported fire in the garage. Battalion Chief Todd Tuggle said crews used standard technique of sending one firefighter up to the roof to ventilate; that firefighter fell through at 1:35 p.m.
Joe Reyes, a former Marine who was driving his daughter and young grandson, helped firefighters make the rescue.
“I figured that whatever I can do to make some kind of effort to help, I’ll do it,” said Reyes, a large man who said he sometimes works as a bodyguard and bouncer.
Reyes cleared trashcans and used an ax to help cut into the side of the garage, where the fallen firefighter was trapped for two to three minutes. Reyes also removed the kinks from several massive fire hoses while most of the fire personnel were busy helping their injured comrade.
“That man lay injured in that burning inferno for between 60 and 180 seconds,” Reyes said. “When they pulled him out, they immediately stripped off his clothes and covered him in water.”
Reyes praised the firefighters, whom he said were organized, professional and “did everything they could.”
Tuggle said, “This is a significant emotional impact to our members, who were part of the rescue, part of the incident and part of this firefighter’s personal life.”
The battalion chief spoke about the reaction he heard from the dozens of people who had gathered around the burning home.
“We could hear people screaming. We could hear people running in to help. I have to believe it was traumatic for the citizens to watch, too.”
Tuttle said several onlookers rushed to help block traffic and keep bystanders away from the still-burning home.
Eleven trucks and 31 personnel worked to extinguish the fire.
Tuggle said the cause of the fire is under investigation, but the fire does not appear to have been started intentionally.
An additional investigation into whether firefighters followed protocol and whether there was an equipment malfunction is also underway, Tuggle said.
Lucia Orozco, who said she’s a resident of the home, described it as a boarding house where social workers have rented out rooms to clients. She said she was resting in her room when she heard someone yell, “Fire!” She said she managed to grab her purse and escape.
Tuggle said a special team within the fire department that specializes in grief counseling will be working with the firefighters involved in the accident.
“They’re broken right now, and that’s part of the process,” Tuggle said. “It will take time. But at the same time, we have a job to do, and we will continue to do so.”