It was not, as District Chief David “Woody” Whitman says, “your average fire call.”
That began with the initial 9-1-1 call, which reported an erroneous address for the apartments that were becoming engulfed in smoke and flames.
It didn’t take long for the first responding Huntsville Fire & Rescue Department team to see the smoke and divert its course. What couldn’t be seen was the tension and danger that would unfold over the next hour.
“I’ve been here 33 years and it was the most complex and dramatic rescue we’ve ever done,” says Huntsville Fire Chief Howard McFarlen. The mission saved the lives of 15-year-old Raheem Dennis and 10-year-old Leshaun Dennis, who were trapped in the inferno of a third-floor apartment on Hundley Drive last Oct. 4.
“We have a saying in the Fire Department,” Whitman says. “We risk a lot to save a lot. We risk a little to save a little. On that day, we risked everything to save those two children.”
The firefighters who performed the rescue were honored Thursday night at the Huntsville City Council. Along with Whitman, who served as spokesperson for the group, the heroes were:
Driver Stephen Alverson
Captain Tim Cartwright
Driver Johnne Casale
Firefighter Josh Cochran
Captain Michael Crumbley
Driver James Davis
Driver Dwight Ellis
Firefighter Tyler Green
Firefighter Donta Heulett
Firefighter Andrew Moss
Driver Jacob Pfeiffer
Captain Scott Pickens
Firefighter Dan Stinnett
Captain Dan Williams
Firefighter Andrew Witherow
“Every day in our department somebody risks their lives,” Whitman says, “whether it’s a wreck on the Interstate or a medical call with shots fired or a fire. It’s just the fact that so many things came together that day that were overcome by these guys.”
Once the first firefighters arrived on the scene, they noted the flames coming from the back of the apartments, further complicating matters in extending their water lines. They discovered Alovi McAfee, the boys’ stepfather, on the ground after he had jumped to safety. He informed the firefighters the boys were still inside.
The wooden stairs leading to the third floor were on fire, as was a deck. Firefighters located the youngsters quickly but fire cut off the path through which they entered. As the first was brought out, Whitman was arriving with another engine company and was told a second child remained trapped.
He and another firefighter went upstairs and were crawling across joists, the floor having already been destroyed, to reach the second child. But their path was blocked. Says Whitman, “Everything was burning all around us.”
They retreated and Whitman ordered a two-ladder rescue, strapping two ladders side-by-side and reaching up to the apartment window.
“The fire was still rolling in. We had not begun to hit the fire at all,” Whitman says. “Two guys got on the ladder (to hold it) and two went up to receive the patient. I grabbed the last fresh firefighter and we went back upstairs and grabbed a (water) line and were able to get in the doorway between the fire and the rescue and hold the fire off, to get the child out and into the arms of the firefighters on the ladder.”
Finally, they could concentrate on extinguishing the fire and keep it from spreading.
“From Day One in the Academy we’re taught that we work as a team, we work with our partners,” Whitman says. “Our job can never get done by one person, and that day was a great example of that.”
As with many successful operations, there was some bit of good fortune involved. But as the old saying goes, luck is the residue of design. As McFarlen put it, “If one thing had failed, we couldn’t have pulled it off.”
Last summer, the department put its ladders through a strenuous test. Several of them failed, and were replaced. Whitman says the rescue would have been impossible had a ladder been faulty.
Recently, McFarlen had his firefighters transition to larger air bottles. Though less bulky, the capacity of the old bottles might not have given the first crew on the scene sufficient air to complete the task.
Finally, there is RIT – Rapid Intervention Teams — taught by Whitman. Though firefighters train in some form or fashion every shift, RIT is among the more intense training sessions department members go through on a regular basis to remain sharp.
“Because of that technique, they knew what they were supposed to do,” Whitman says.
“It’s stuff we practice every day and we put in place,” McFarlen says. “And those two kids are still here because of that.”