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Responder Feels Lucky to Have Escaped With Life

Responder Feels Lucky to Have Escaped With Life

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via YellowBrix

June 20, 2011

NEW KENSINGTON, PA – City firefighter John Shirey was searching for a fire Saturday night but instead, it found him.

When he finally felt the fire that he and the other two members of his hose team, brothers Vince and Garrett Sekanick, were looking for inside 425 Ridge Ave., he didn’t care about seeing it.

“I was on the nozzle and we were up on the second floor at the top of the stairwell when the temperatures went from a bearable situation, a normal situation, to where my ears were burning and you know it’s time to get out,” Shirey, 34, said.

Shirey and the Sekanicks managed to escape the fire with minor burns, according to Assistant Fire Chief Ed Saliba Jr., who also said a fourth firefighter, Todd Mentecki, who is a city councilman, suffered smoke inhalation. All were taken to Allegheny Valley Hospital, Harrison, for treatment and later released.

Saliba is the son of Fire Chief Ed Saliba Sr., who could not be reached for comment Sunday. He was out of town when the fire occurred but did provide information on their injuries.

He said Garrett Sekanick, 21, suffered second-degree burns to his legs, fingers and ears while his brother, Vince, 24, had second-degree burns to his legs and Shirey had first-degree burns to his back and left leg. They and Mentecki are members of New Kensington Fire Company No. 1.

The fire, which was called in around 9:20 p.m., and a second one in a vacant house at 300 McCargo St., which was discovered a short time later, are under investigation by state police fire marshal Kevin Karwatski, Saliba said. He said he had not received any word about the cause Sunday.

When firefighters arrived at the scene, there was thick smoke but no flames visible.

Shirey said he and the Sekanicks entered the first floor and looked around for the fire and any possible occupants, but saw neither.

“We went into the first floor, we stopped and listened,” Shirey said. “Normally you can hear it crackling. There was no sign of intense heat. It was as if the fire was invisible; we couldn’t see it at all.”

They climbed the stairs near the front door to continue their investigation on the second floor. That’s when the situation suddenly changed.

“Whenever I started feeling the burning, that is the first time I actually felt the fire and it felt like it was behind us on the steps and I knew it was time to get out,” Shirey said.

He said Garrett Sekanick was with him, manning the hose in the hallway. Shirey said Vince had gone into a bedroom to open some windows to get rid of some of the smoke and try to get the fire to expose itself as air entered the structure.

“He was in the room right next to us and Garrett Sekanick was right behind me,” Shirey said. “When I felt the heat I said, ’We’ve got to get out now,’ and we yelled for Vince.”

At the same time, he said they could hear the airhorns on the fire engines, a warning from their comrades outside — who by then could see the flames — that something was wrong.

He said they hurried down the steps, tumbling as they went.

Meanwhile, a second hose team had set up at the front door when the other firefighters saw the flames trying to move up the steps.

“Instead of going out the door, it was coming up at us like a chimney effect,” Shirey said. “They were able to knock it down so it wouldn’t really hurt us.”

When the trio got outside, the hose was turned on them to cool them off.

As the situation unfolded inside, Mentecki said he scaled a ladder outside to a porch roof to knock out some windows and ventilate the house to help the firefighters inside. But, in his haste to aid his comrades, Mentecki did not take the time to put on his air mask and when he knocked out the windows he was hit by a blast of smoke forced out by the pressure from the heat.

“I felt as if time was of the essence in doing that and if it helped get them out, it was worth it to me,” said Mentecki.

He said he stayed on the scene for about an hour until his coughing from the smoke got progressively worse and he began to feel nauseated. He was treated at the scene by an ambulance crew who then took him to the hospital.

Saliba said the firefighters had all their turnout gear on but the burns to Shirey and the Sekanicks were a testament to the fire’s intensity.

“They had no exposed skin, but that is the severity of how hot it was,” he said.

Shirey was grateful that the turnout gear did its job.

“It (fire) went from nothing to something very bad in a matter of seconds,” Shirey said.

Mentecki was also thankful.

“I know this was a bad situation but the good thing is that everyone was able to go home and that is the most important thing,” he said.