Father's Day Rescue

Father's Day Rescue

It's the crisis firefighters worry about most: a child trapped in a burning house.

Don Hawley, a father in firefighter's uniform

We ate a big breakfast at a local restaurant, like we did every Father's Day. Then off to church. Pastor talked about how God is a father who never lets his children down. I wanted to be a father like that.

One of the presents my daughters gave me was a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "World's Coolest Dad." That was good enough for me.

After church I put the shirt on. Then we'd leave for a car show the next town over. That was also our tradition. Just like any other Father's Day. That's what made it so great.

Just as we headed out the front door my volunteer fire-department pager went off. Nuts, I thought. Maybe it's just a brush fire and they won't need me.

But the dispatcher's voice crackled: "Attention, Pocahontas-Old Ripley firefighters! House fire on Simpson Street. Repeat. House fire on Simpson Street."

"Gotta go," I said. I left my family on the front porch, ran to my car, jumped behind the wheel and took off. Again the dispatcher's voice: "There is a child inside. Repeat. A child is trapped inside the house."

I drove to the firehouse, all the while hoping it would just be a false alarm. That happens a lot. We'd get to a house fire and find everyone standing outside in the yard, safe.

I got to the firehouse in minutes. Another firefighter, Tom Smith, and the chief were waiting. "Tommy, Don, take truck two-five-three. Roll!" he ordered. "The rest of the guys will be right behind you."

Tommy and I threw on our fire-retardant clothes and boots. "What do you think?" Tommy asked.

"False alarm, maybe?" But it was more of a hope than an opinion.

Tommy and I rolled in truck 253, siren ripping through the otherwise peaceful Sunday afternoon. As the first on the scene, our job was to make sure everyone was out of the house, locate the nearest hydrant, then wait for backup.

And there was another backup. Prayer. I always pray before going in to a fire. '

The truck screeched around the corner onto Simpson. A small crowd had gathered in front of number 907. They appeared agitated, almost panicky. Smoke billowed from the one-story house's open front door. Tommy grabbed the radio.

"Truck two-five-three on scene. Advise all units: We have smoke; this is a working fire!"

We lurched to a stop. The bystanders swarmed us. "The baby's inside!" one yelled. "Do something, quick!"

First Tommy and I had to put on our air packs. We wouldn't stand a chance without oxygen. Someone—a neighbor, I figured—stood in the doorway of the house holding a garden hose, a pathetic jet of water spurting in vain.

A large man burst through the door, sputtering and coughing, red eyes streaming with tears. "Please hurry!" he called. "My boy's still in there. I couldn't get to him!"

Tommy and I glanced at each other. I knew what he was thinking. No time to wait for backup. Together we raced toward the house. We heard a voice behind us. Battalion Chief Steve Brown was on scene. Backup would be here soon.

Steve yanked the garden hose from the neighbor and headed inside. "Let's move," he said.

Tommy and I plunged through the doorway. Curtains of fire ate away at the walls and ceiling. The place was an inferno. And all we had was a garden hose. That wouldn't cut it.

Lord, I begged, please get those other firefighters here on the double. Please shield us from the flames and lead us to that child. Please don't let us die. Especially not today.

Tommy and I worked as a pair. We got down on all fours. Every few seconds I reached out to touch Tommy or I felt him touch me. Maintain contact, I reminded myself. That's one of the first rules.

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