*Story by Fire Chief Steve Moody
It was nighttime. The building sat half a block from the fire station. So, when the tone came in, “Fire with heavy smoke in St. John’s Baptist church”, it didn’t take fire crews long to mount their truck, exit the station, and see the smoke.
Because of the dense smoke the Lieutenant chose to grab their own hydrant. The task was relayed to the young firefighter in the jump seat. Unfortunately, the firefighter had a “brain freeze.” When the truck stopped, he jumped off and pulled not the hydrant line, he pulled the hand line. The other firefighter leaped off and helped pick up the hand line, tossed it upon the truck, and got the hydrant line.
The Command officer pulled into the parking lot south of the building. Unfortunately, he never got a view from the back of the building, but a police officer pulled into a west parking lot where he and his video cam recorded the fire from the building’s backside. More about that later.
Back to the engine. That “first in” engine was now on scene. Two firefighters took the hand line that had the early “pull off” and they entered the side door of the church. Downwards into the basement they went.
The pump operator was also a bit green on experience and because of that he couldn’t get water to the firefighters. So, out came the firefighters. By this time other crews were on scene.
All of the sudden there was massive explosive blast! One firefighter was on the front steps – six steps up. The blast tossed him off the steps and onto the ground like a rag doll.
Another firefighter was standing on the engine side of the church. Two multi-passenger vans were thereabouts parked perpendicular to the building. These vans were crushed to the seats by a wall of bricks from the building blast. This was also where Firefighter Jerry Short was standing.
Short was covered up with bricks. A Mayday was announced by Command. Fellow firefighters had to move bricks to uncover him. Short was the last one accounted for. He was transported to the hospital and stayed overnight with numerous bruising to the body.
A review of the officer’s tape showed the fire was being fed by a gas line on the backside of the church. It’s anybody’s guess wither the explosion was a reach by the gas line or if it was a backdraft from the spontaneous ignition of super heated rooms. The fire cause was undetermined.
One thing was certain. Somebody was overlooking the firefighters.