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Courage Confronts Fire and Fear

Firefighters have only seconds to find people as a blaze heads for 1,200 degrees -- the point at which everything explodes in flame.

June 15, 2003|Liz Sidoti | Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the truck sped along an empty street, the Engine 13 crew members silently added up what they knew.

It was 4:05 a.m. after a beautiful 65-degree spring Saturday night. They were racing to a rooming house in a popular neighborhood of rental homes near the Ohio State University campus. These were large old structures known for housing up to 20 students and known for raucous street parties with dozens of beer kegs.

The radio crackled, "We have a 2 1/2-story, fully involved fire!"

The first company, Engine 7, was already on the scene.

"There's going to be dead people," firefighter Mike Burnheimer said matter-of-factly, drawing on his more than 10 years of experience. "We're going to be pullin' out dead ones."

They arrived to find a wall of fire consuming the front of the brick-and-frame house perched on a hill. The brilliant flames cast an orange glow, and the smell of smoke was overwhelming.

Engine 13 stopped at the corner. The firefighters threw open the doors and went to work.

With no available hydrant in sight, the four charged up the grassy incline and along the side of the house, ducking to avoid flames rolling from the windows. Adrenaline made it easy to sprint, despite 50 pounds of fireproof clothing and gear.

They stormed by 20 people in the parking lot behind the house.

"Is there anybody in there?" Burnheimer shouted.

"Second-floor, second bedroom on the left," replied one who had escaped the blaze.

Others yelled, "Second-floor! Second-floor!"

There was no time to grab a hose.

Burnheimer bounded up the fire escape, his steel-toed boots clanging against the metal steps.


Fires are noisy, as heat and gases build, causing anything in the way -- walls, floors, furniture -- to burst into flames. But the back hallway was eerily silent.

"Dead quiet," thought Scott Kulpa, another member of Engine 13, who had also charged to the second floor.

The flames had not yet spread there.

But the smoke had: It was dense and dark as it dropped to the floor and curled out the door into branches of overhanging trees.

Creeping from the floor below, the heat crawled up the walls. The cinderblocks created an oven. The second floor became hotter with each passing second -- 300 degrees Fahrenheit, 500 degrees, 700 degrees.

It rose to 900 and headed for 1,200 degrees -- the point of combustion, when everything explodes in flame.

If people remained alive in here, there would be only seconds to find them.

"I need you to go to the left! Scott! Second door, left-hand side!" Burnheimer shouted to Kulpa.


Meanwhile, firefighter Brian Morstadt moved down the hallway, where blackness obscured almost everything, then crawled through a bedroom door on the right.

Suddenly, a pair of legs stumbled toward him.

On his knees, Morstadt reached out just as Jennifer Lehren collapsed over his back. Crouching, he started to carry her outside over his shoulder.

"Give her to me!" Burnheimer yelled from the landing.

He grabbed Lehren, stood her upright and she lost consciousness, limp like a rag doll.

Burnheimer dragged her to the parking lot below, lay her down and checked for a pulse. He found none.

Lehren then turned her head and vomited.

Lt. Carl Jepson, the crew's only paramedic, took over, while Burnheimer rushed back up the steps.


Kulpa could see nothing as he crawled along the left side of the hallway. The beam of his flashlight was swallowed by smoke.

His mouth felt stuffed with cotton. His skin was clammy beneath his suit. Heat engulfed him.

Behind him, he could hear Lehren shrieking hysterically.

"It's hot! It's hot in here! It's hot! Don't touch me!"

Kulpa slid along the floor on his stomach. His left glove skimmed the hallway wall as he felt for a door frame. Reaching the first door, he hesitated before opening it.

"I know where I've gotta go," Kulpa told himself, remembering the location those outside had shouted -- second floor, second bedroom on the left.

Pausing, he thought, "I shouldn't be going by a door. I can't pass a door."

Kulpa crawled inside about five feet, an ax in his right hand. He reached forward with his left and felt something soft.

He couldn't tell what it was, started searching the other direction, then turned back and grabbed the object tightly.

A leg. A girl.

Jillian Gardner was unconscious, face down on the floor in an "S" shape.

Staying low, Kulpa rolled Gardner on her back to protect her face, pulled her to the door and into the hallway.

Gases swirled at the ceiling and sparked as the fumes ignited.

Climbing protectively on top of Gardner, Kulpa fished his arms through hers and crawled out on his knees and forearms. Her long, lean body dragged beneath his stout 5-feet-4-inch frame.

They reached the fire escape and he carried her halfway down.

"Here, hand her to me," Burnheimer yelled as he moved up the stairs.

Kulpa passed her off and looked up. A black curtain of smoke covered the doorway. Flames spread down from the ceiling.

He caught a glimpse of Morstadt's torso leaning out of the billowing clouds on the second floor.

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