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Firefighters Credit Equipment, Training for Surviving Explosion

Arizona Republic via YellowBrix

July 29, 2010

TEMPE, AZ – The flash and explosion that smashed windows, hurled doors and threw people several feet in Tempe on Saturday was one of the worst nightmares firefighters face.

In days gone by, the back-draft-driven blaze that caused a flash and explosion in a 1940s house on South Mill Avenue could have spelled disaster.

But with today’s equipment and training programs, firefighters suffered only minor burns, even though one was ejected 15 feet out the front door and another was tossed 6 feet into a side yard.

Everyone inside the home had been evacuated before the explosion occurred. A boa constrictor presumed lost in the residence found its way outside and into the wheel of a truck.

As for the firefighters, “equipment saved their lives,” said Capt. Kevin Bailey, Tempe fire spokesman.

slideshow Training saves Tempe Firefighters

Each firefighter carries about 70 pounds and $30,000 of equipment including a helmet, hood, jacket, pants and gloves. Most of the items have several layers, especially the jacket, which has three layers, Bailey said. The outside is Kevlar-based and durable. The middle layer is a moisture barrier, and the third is a thermal quilt. The layers provide protection, and the airspace between the layers adds comfort, Bailey said.

Firefighters carry self-contained breathing apparatuses, usually two large canisters, that have warning systems in place. One is a bell that rings when oxygen is low, and another is a set of lights that flash from green to red inside the helmets.

In the summer, firefighters may only fight about 30 minutes a time due to the extreme temperatures.

Under their helmets, firefighters wear two-layered hoods over their necks and ears. They used to wear pull-up boots, but those made crawling difficult so boots and pants are now one unit.

Each firefighter carries a radio as well as equipment such as pickaxes.

Each unit, Bailey said, also has a thermal-imaging camera, allowing them to see each other and other warmth-generating objects even in the thickest of smoke.

Tempe’s 140 firefighters are well-trained, said Capt. Bob Matthews. They begin with a 16-week, 40-hour-a-week academy and cycle through assignments on two engines and a ladder truck their first year.

Still none of them want to face a blaze like the one at the brick house in the 1200 block of South Mill Ave. The battle began about 10:40 p.m. and the fire was under control by 11:30 p.m., but the damage it caused belied its short duration.

The aggressive fire, labeled suspicious and under investigation, began in the kitchen at the back of the 1,500-square-foot house, said Mike Reichling, Tempe fire inspector. The old house quickly filled with a thick black smoke, even as firefighters cut holes through a well-constructed ceiling. The holes weren’t big enough to allow enough release of the acrid smoke, Reichling said.

Tom Letter, engineer-paramedic, was one of those there that day. A red burn in his cheek is a reminder of the explosion.

“We were just inside the front door of the house, about 10 feet,” Letter said. They were set to do a primary search when Letter said they saw a flash.

“I heard a sound of a jet engine starting up – a whoosh,” Letter said. “I heard a really loud snap and the boom. Then flame just blasted past us.”

The explosion forced several colleagues to the floor, though Letter remained standing by a wall. One firefighter who had been using a hose was hurled 15 feet out the front door. The front door was smashed into smithereens and blown 25 feet onto Mill Avenue, Reichling said. Splinters from the door littered the front of the residence.

Another firefighter was thrown about 6 feet onto the grass.

The blast also ejected cast-iron windows, lifted the ceiling and twisted a steel beam supporting the roof, Matthews said.

Letter’s first reaction upon seeing colleagues on the floor of the house was to figure out how to drag them to safety. Fortunately, the men were all able to make it out on their own.

“I was scared after the fact,” Letter said, “not knowing what was happening and seeing people on the ground.”

A back draft occurs when oxygen is depleted and smoke and chemicals build up. When oxygen is suddenly reintroduced, it creates the explosion and flash, Reichling said.

The house is owned by a woman known as Elna Rae, Reichling said. A Tempe street is named after the owner, and she and her husband live in Chandler and typically rent the house to college students, Reichling said.

Much of the structure is now charred and black. Windows are facedown on the grass outside. Splinters are littered across the yard. Blackened furniture abounds, but a bookcase filled with tomes surprisingly remains intact.

About 98 percent of the house was destroyed, with a price tag of about $250,000.

One tenant was panicked over his missing boa constrictor that lived in a small cage in his room.

The snake crawled out of the raging fire onto the grass and into the wheel of Reichling’s red pickup truck, his head sticking out of a hole.