Did CT Firefighers' Oxygen Tanks Run Out?
Bridgeport Fire Chief Brian Rooney speaks at a news conference on the deaths of two firefighters, Lt. Steven Velasquez and Michel Baik, on Sunday morning from the Bridgeport headquarters. The firefighters were found unconscious while fighting a fire at 41
New York Daily News via YellowBrix
July 26, 2010
BRIDGEPORT — Firefighters. They rush into buildings when everyone else is rushing out.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with our wiring,” said Assistant Fire Chief Manuel Firpi, as he stood Sunday outside the 7-11, the Ocean Terrace firehouse. “It’s like a calling, like a priest or a teacher or a medic, not everyone can do the job. There’s just something inside you that says I’m going to risk life and limb to help somebody I don’t even know.”
Firpi was at the 7-11 to try and explain the deaths Saturday afternoon of two firefighters, Lt. Steven Velasquez and Michel Baik, in what was supposed to be a routine fire on the city’s West Side.
“We joke around with each other, call each other names, things I wouldn’t want to say here, and tear each other down all the time as kind of a way to deal with stress,” Firpi continued. “Because we know there are those times we are going to be running hard especially when we hear a child is in danger.”
Although there’s been no conclusion as to the official cause of death, speculation among their fellow firefighters is that the two ran out of oxygen in their breathing tanks and were overcome with smoke.
Fire Department Spokesman Capt. Ed McCann said the State Fire Marshal’s office, which was called in to investigate the fire and the deaths of the two firefighters, has confiscated the two men’s breathing equipment to determine if there were any problems.
“They had full equipment on when they went in and we don’t know if there was a problem with the equipment or they just ran out of air,” he said. “My feeling is that they probably ran out of air, but we won’t know until they finish the investigation.”
McCann explained that the tanks hold between a half hour to 45 minutes of oxygen. “Sometimes its longer, sometimes its shorter, depending on the man and the amount of work he is doing. In a situation like this where it was hot they could have really been gulping the air.”
Saturday’s high temperatures in Bridgeport were in the low 90s, and the peak humidity was 94 percent.
On Sunday morning Fire Chief Brian Rooney addressed a roomful of news media at department headquarters about the devastating fire.
“Yesterday our department experienced our worst nightmare,” confirmed Rooney. “We lost two of our bravest firefighters, two great firefighters, two great heros.”
Rooney said there is always a danger when responding to a fire at any of the hundreds of wood-frame multi-family homes that make up city neighborhoods. Because of their balloon-style construction, fire gets between the walls and spreads directly to the upper floor and roof. But, he said, in most cases the blazes are put down quickly and everyone goes home.
But not this time.
“We are still in shock and disbelief,” he added.
What is known is that Velasquez, a 16-year veteran of the fire department, and Baik, a rookie of two years, were sent to the third floor of the building at 41 Elmwood Ave. to rip down the ceiling to root out any hidden hot spots and to search for anyone still trapped in the building.
“They were doing something that is quite routine,” Rooney continued, looking very grim. “Something obviously went wrong.”
Another firefighter who got to the scene saw that Velasquez and Baik were in trouble and called a “mayday,” which Rooney said brought an immediate response from the rapid intervention team waiting outside the building.
“The two men were brought out and they worked on them trying to revive them but were unsuccessful,” he said.
“We face the potential of this happening every day but try not to think about it,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “It could have happened to any one of us.”
Funeral arrangements for the two firefighters were still being planned Sunday. Firefighters from all over the country are expected to attend the funeral. The Arena at Harbor Yard is being discussed as a possible venue for a memorial service.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell has ordered that flags be lowered to half-staff in honor of the two firefighters.
Back at the Ocean Terrace firehouse, it was obvious Autumn Waggoner had been crying. In her starched blue firefighter’s uniform she tried not to show it, keeping a hold on her emotions. But it was apparent they were starting to get the better of her.
Asked her official title she stiffened her back and proclaimed proudly, “I’m a fireman.”
Firpi said the loss of the two men was devastating to the fire company. “We are holding each other up. It’s tough but the job still has to be done.”
He said the men’s shift was taken off duty Saturday night and were sent to see crisis intervention counselors. “But most of those guys have booked back in. There is no hesitation; if the same kind of call came in they would be back right at it.”
To Waggoner it was the little things that set her off Sunday.
“When we opened the door this morning someone had put these candles outside. Somebody did this quiet little thing and it was very dear,” she said.
“And then Mitch’s boots were inside and we kept hearing this beeping. Mitch’s cell phone was in one of his boots.”