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Surviving the Flames; Two Heroes Tell their Tale

Surviving the Flames; Two Heroes Tell their Tale

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The Modesto Bee via YellowBrix

March 22, 2010

No matter how thoroughly they tried to describe it, they are the only ones who can truly understand that perilous moment. It bonded them for life as survivors and friends.

They landed several feet apart: Clevenger on his feet in a squat and Adams on his rear end, badly bruising his tailbone. Adams got to his knees, then something fell across the back of his legs and trapped him. Whatever it was — part of the roof, perhaps — was on fire like everything else.

They saw nothing except flames. Clevenger knew the layout of the house. When he tried to find Adams and a way out, though, he came up empty.

Clevenger ran into a wall in the form of a section of the collapsed roof. His clothing on fire, Clevenger grabbed his ax and began chopping away at the barrier until it gave way. He couldn’t find Adams, who hadn’t been able to free himself from the burning debris across his legs.

“The part that haunts me is that I had to leave before I could get you out,” Clevenger told Adams when they visited Thursday at Adams’ home in Calaveras County.

Before Clevenger made it into the home and out the front door, he was hit by a stream of water as he screamed, “Jim’s still inside!”

Adams couldn’t get his legs free and felt the pain of his flesh burning.

“At that point, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said. He tried to cover his head and ears, which were badly burned. “I knew it was a matter of waiting for our guys to come and get me.”

Clevenger was still on fire when he came out of the house, yet had to be restrained from going back in to find Adams.

“No matter how much you hurt, how can you let someone you love and respect so much die such a horrible death?” Clevenger said.

A freshly trained rescue team made sure that didn’t happen.

“The month before the fire, we had a firefighter survival drill,” Fire Chief Miguel said. “The drill we went through was similar to what they went into that night: Go in and find downed firefighters, supply them with air and water and get them out. The guys on the scene did exactly what you’d hoped they’d do.”

They got Adams out of there, alive, in 90 seconds.

As paramedics loaded Adams into an ambulance, Clevenger came over to his friend.

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