Rushing Into the Inferno: One Team Saves Dozens of Lives

August 5, 2020

Black smoke billowed from behind a three-story building across the street from a Waterbury, CT, hospital. It was about 9:30 a.m., and the AMR medical team of Paramedic Keith Slater and EMT Michael Messenger had just completed a transport when they noticed the plume. 

Exiting the hospital drive, they pulled up to an adjacent corner and jumped out to investigate the source of the smoke. Circling the building, they found a motor bike engulfed in flame. Later, residents would tell local news that they remembered seeing people working on the bike earlier.

The motor bike was parked beneath an elevated wooden deck with stairs leading up. Realizing that the fire could spread easily and rapidly, the pair leapt into action. Messenger returned to his vehicle to call the fire into dispatch. Slater battled the rising heat of the flames to try to move the motor bike from under the exposed deck. But it was too intense and the flames rose higher, threatening the two businesses on the ground floor and the 12 apartments above. The fire spread from the stairs to the side of the building.

Floor-by-Floor Evacuation
Realizing that the people inside may not yet understand that they were in danger, and with the rear entrance impassable from smoke and flames, Messenger and Slater rushed around to the front. Entering the building, they went floor-by-floor, knocking on doors to alert the surprised occupants that there was a fire and that they needed to evacuate. Reaching the third floor, they were informed that there was another, independent entrance off one of the side streets. 

As they descended the stairway, Messenger and Slater made sure to close the doors at each floor, blocking smoke and fire, at least temporarily, as the residents filed out. They rushed to the side-street entrance and, upon accessing the stairwell there, they realized that smoke was already pouring in. Slater observed flames spreading from an apartment already ablaze. 

In the haze, the team split up. Messenger took the first floor and began knocking on doors. Slater made his way to the third floor. He heard screams and helped as many residents as he could until the floor became fully charged with smoke, creating a zero-visibility situation. Descending to the second floor he found three young children, scared and alone, huddling on the landing. 

No Child Left Behind
The kids looked like deer caught in the headlights, frozen and unsure of what to do or where to go. Now Messenger, having completed the evacuation of the first floor, joined Slater with the children. He picked up one of them and carried her to safety below while Messenger escorted the other two out and got them clear of the danger. 

Once outside, the AMR crew realized that the fire had spread to an adjacent structure and that nearby power lines were burning. They quickly escorted all the residents who had evacuated the first burning structure to safety further away. Messenger then ran to the ambulance to move it to a safe location while Slater went to the second burning structure to alert and evacuate the residents. He banged on the front door, but no one answered. However, the Waterbury Fire Department had now arrived. 

The crew updated the fire department and then remained on scene as a stand-by unit. What had seemed like an eternity in actuality had been a mere five minutes or so. Time had stood still for them as their training and innate sense of duty had kicked in. In all, 35 residents were cleared safely from the blaze. Tragically, one elderly gentleman was not as fortunate. The two structures that caught fire had to be demolished due to totality of the destructive inferno.

Community and Company Recognition
Their actions did not go unnoticed. In a ceremony a week later, Slater and Messenger were honored by state and local officials. Connecticut State Senator Eric Berthel and Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leiry were on hand to praise the team’s heroics. They also received the AMR Lifesaving Award and a television news crew covered the event. It seems the only ones who did not find their actions remarkable were Slater and Messenger, themselves.

“It’s great that all these people are willing to take time to let us know how they feel,” said Slater. “But to us, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. This industry is filled with people who care. We just happened to be there.”

Messenger agreed. “We don’t look for recognition,” he said. “If it had been another one of our crews, they would have done the same thing.”

However, Tom Maxian, Regional Vice President of Northeast Operations, put things in a larger perspective. “Keith and Michael’s actions almost certainly prevented additional injuries or deaths,” he said. “At a Moment’s Notice and without hesitation, they put the welfare of others ahead of their own. Their selflessness embodies the spirit of our profession, and their willingness to do whatever it took to ensure the safety of others makes us proud to be their teammates.”      

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