SHOP TALK

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2 dead in Kensington blaze punctuated by gunfire

One of the men appeared to have been fatally shot in the head by the other inside the rowhouse, Evers said. The gunman then exchanged fire with two or three police officers, he said, but it was not yet known whether he was struck by any police bullets.

No officers or firefighters at the scene were injured, Evers said. The fire was reported just before noon in the 3300 block of Rand Street. Firefighters found heavy flames – and the sound of gunfire – coming from the second floor. Police arrived to find a man who appeared to be dead of a gunshot to the head at the foot of the interior stairway, Evers said. A second man at the top of the stairs shot at police, who returned fire and backed out of the building.

The officers called for help from a SWAT team, Evers said, but the second floor of the house collapsed before the reinforcements arrived. By about 12:30 p.m., firefighters had the blaze under control. Two bodies were later found inside, Evers said. Police had not determined the nature of the dead men’s dispute. Evers said investigators are looking into the possibility of a domestic problem.

“Very rarely do we have a job like this,” he said. Autopsies will be conducted to determine the causes of death and to confirm the men’s identities, Evers said. LINK

This is the media version of events that is closest to what really happened today, but it is still filled with inaccuracies. After reading media reports of events I have witnessed or have been a part of over the years, I NEVER believe what they print or say anymore. Here’s my version:

Saturdays are usually pretty slow around the firehouse. It’s a day when we try to do some of the more mundane tasks that go with being a firefighter. Training, equipment maintenance and the never-ending paperwork. Today was my first shift of the week. I fully anticipated being able to accomplish some of those tasks and even get a little school work done if I was lucky. It was not to be. As I sat at my computer in my little office I had no way to know that I was about to experience the most intense 30 minutes of my career.

Due to a staffing need I was working with another Captain. I good guy, excellent firefighter and all around ace, Captain F was detailed in because his company was BROWNED OUT today due to the city’s perpetual budget mismanagement. Our regular engine officer was filling in at another company because their regular officer is ill. It turned out to be a day that Captain X will never forget. It’s popular firehouse legend that the crazy stuff usually happens when you are working overtime, or are detailed or covering another shift. The “Big One” always happens when you are out of your normal routine. Sometimes it is so.

The alarm sounded shortly before lunch time. My station was first in at a reported house fire. We followed the chief and the engine through the insanely narrow streets of Kensington, dodging pedestrians, potholes and the cars that never seem to get out-of-the-way. A few blocks out the alarm room upgraded the assignment with two more engines and another chief. That means they were getting a lot of calls. I knew that we would be working this time and started pulling my gear a little tighter. As we headed up one of the big hills in our local I could hear the tillerman (the guy who steers the back of the ladder) let out a low ooooohhhhh over the intercom. Having the advantage of being up high I knew he could see something I couldn’t. I was right. As we crested the hill I could see a column of smoke off to our front left.

As we bore down on the address, illegally parked cars thwarted our attempts to make the turn we wanted. We were forced to drive a couple of blocks out of our way until we found a street we could navigate. At that point we had to stop completely, dismount and guide the truck around the turn. Few things infuriate firefighters more than being delayed on our way to a working fire, especially by illegal parking. If we even so much as side swipe a car or knock off a mirror we would be looking at disciplinary charges. Our drivers are some of the best in the world at what they do.

Over the radio I heard Captain F giving his report, the engine was already on location: heavy fire from a row dwelling. 2 engines and 2 ladders in service immediately. About a block or two out the radio room also reported that there was a man with a gun supposedly on scene. I passed this on to my crew. Marvelous, I thought. Later I found out not everyone got that message.

We stopped at the end of the block and I jumped out of the truck. I could see the engine in the middle of the street. They already had a line charged and they were playing it into the second floor window from in front of the house. There was a lot of fire and smoke. We charged down the block and my guys went to work putting up ladders. Two took saws and axes to the roof. I got into position and using a firefighter’s sledge-hammer took a whack at the front door. It flew open immediately. I was surprised to see Lt. R. from another engine company already inside. He had made his way in from the rear. The first floor was relatively clear so we went in.

Philadelphia is a city of what we call “row houses”. They all share some of the same basic characteristics: usually twenty to thirty in a row, brick, two or three stories and roughly 15-20 feet wide by 35-50 feet deep. This house was on the small side, maybe 15 X 35. Not big at all. So when I entered it was hard to miss the dead man, lying on his back in the middle of the nearly vacant living room. Blood could be seen from a head wound. I assumed initially that this was our man with the gun. I immediately started looking for the gun. Any time we have a situation like that I want the gun secured ASAP. Only there was no gun to be seen. The smoke thickened and the glow from the fire raging in the second floor drew my attention to the stairs to my right.

Captain F. and the engine crew had come in behind us and started advancing the hose up the stairs. I could see the tip man (nozzle man) nearly half way up when debris started raining down on him. I thought the ceiling was coming down because of the fire. Events were now speeding up to near warp speed. A large board or something came next. I could hear a sound like someone in serious pain, kind of an anguished groaning. I thought the tip man was being burned or ran into some other trouble.

Captain F looked right at me and said “get out the back now”! Simultaneously the engine crew backed out the front door.

The last thing firefighters ever want to do is abandon a good fire prematurely. But I respect Captain F. I knew he wouldn’t be saying something like that to me without a pretty good reason. So together with my search and rescue man, we bolted the fifteen feet to the kitchen door and into the alley. Lt. R. for some reason was still there and I watched him apparently trying to coax some unseen person down from upstairs. I now realized there was someone else in the house, possibly another(?) gunman.

About 45 seconds, maybe a minute went by when three to four uniformed police officers came in through the front door, guns drawn. I was still in the alley looking in through the kitchen door with my guy next to me. The police officers were in serious mode. They were pointing their guns up the stairs and yelling for the person to come down. Then they started telling him to “drop the gun” in no uncertain terms. I could see three of them with I believe a fourth out of view. They yelled for what seemed an eternity as we got as low as we could in the alley.

Then the shooting started. A lot of shooting.

I don’t know who fired first. But the police officers could not have been in a more difficult position. It is a position no one in any other profession could ever understand (unless they were sitting where I was). The smoke had started packing down, water rained down from upstairs, the heat was getting more intense and there was a dead guy laying on the floor, possibly a victim of the person they were now confronting. A killer. There is no way to attach a legitimate salary to that job description. Politicians and most civilians will never understand what emergency services and law enforcement personnel actually go through or they would just leave us alone to take care of the things that are to unsavory for everyone else to deal with.

When the shooting stopped there was no sign of the man at the top of the steps. The fire had grown in intensity and was taking control of the entire second floor. The police shouted for us to get out so for some unknown reason we ran back through the house and out the front door. I figured they were covering us in case the guy started trying to shoot out the back window.

We made it up the street as all hell broke loose. There had to 200 people on scene. Representatives from half a dozen city agencies. Lots of cops and firemen, everywhere. The decision was made to wait for the SWAT team to get on location to clear the house before we would attempt to fight the fire any further. That meant we were in for a real battle. It isn’t our normal thing to let fires get ahead of us. But this situation was anything but normal. The heavy smoke gave us a real beating as we tried to get the hose streams to hit the seat of the fire underneath the now collapsed roof. It was brutal and tiring.

As the fire grew and SWAT got on scene it became apparent that no one could survive in the house. We cautiously began to fight the fire from the exterior and I joined my other guys on the roof. They had wisely taken refuge a few houses down when all the gunfire was going on. We fought the fire for most of the afternoon before finally getting the upper hand. When the roof collapsed we decided there was no more for us to do up there and climbed back down to the street. The call was made and a city demolition team brought in a crane to dismantle the building before it collapsed further. Prior to that we did manage to remove the body from the first floor.

As witnesses to this whole affair both me and firefighter O who was with me in the alley as well as some of the other firefighters had to go to police headquarters and give statements. I was filthy and exhausted both physically and mentally. We were starving having only grabbed a McDonald’s hamburger brought to us by the Second Alarmers. They are a volunteer group that helps out on fires and other incidents by providing food and drinks to the emergency workers at larger incidents. They are a Godsend and as usual the cops ate most of the food and drank most of the coffee while doing the least amopunt of work.

Ok snark. 🙂 Everyone we dealt with was utterly professional and it is great that we don’t have the stupidity that goes on in some other cities. In Philly the cops and firemen get along great and that lets us run some pretty good operations.

I finally got home later than usual. I lost my cell phone (since found at the station). My legs were cramping up, then I realized I had been standing almost all day. A hot shower and a dose of Motrin to knock down the intense headache and some hugs from the kids. A microwave platter from dinner I missed and some decompression time.

In six hours it’s back to the firehouse.

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6 Responses to SHOP TALK

  1. Stephen Rousell says:

    This story is so gay

  2. Old NFO says:

    Good wrap up CA, and shooting at you as you fight the fire is NOT good… Pulling out was the right thing, and while it meant more work, at least all of y’all came home last night!

  3. Dustoff says:

    Great job Capt.
    Yes I know what you mean about cars parked where they shouldn’t be… real pain in the A$$.

  4. Bob G. says:

    Cap:
    TO WANT to run into a burning building to extinguish a fire and/or save a life is ONE thing…
    To have to hunker down because of GUNFIRE while trying to do the FIRST job is quite another.

    Wanting to find cover and become a “hole in the alley” with THOSE houses ain’t easy wearing all that gear.

    Never a more TRUE aspect to the term: FATAL FUNNEL.

    Glad all you smoke-eaters and the po-pos came out unscathed.

    Good coverage of the story by you.

    Roll safe out there!

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