As Engine 33 of the Buffalo Fire Department battled an intense fire in the attic of an East Side home Thursday night, a firefighter became separated from his hose, disoriented and couldn't find his way out.
He tried to press the "man-down" button on his portable radio but was unable to. He took his gloves off in an effort to activate the button but could not, causing severe burns to his hands and wrists. He then followed his training by getting into a prone position and he began to conserve oxygen.
His fellow Engine 33 firefighters were able to find him.
Buffalo Fire Commissioner William Renaldo put it simply: "They saved his life."
The firefighter, whose name was not released, was in stable condition Friday at Erie County Medical Center. The injuries to his hands and wrists were third-degree burns, which go through the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (lower layer) of the skin and sometimes affecting deeper tissues, resulting in white or blackened skin that can be numb.
Renaldo on Friday provided a detailed picture of what happened Thursday night inside a Butler Avenue house fire that sent four firefighters to the hospital overnight.
“We drill all the time for these emergency situations," said Renaldo. "The crews were able to react very well and professionally and actually rescued our firefighter to get him out.”
The fire at 82 Butler Ave. began around 8:30 p.m. Thursday and did at least $100,000 of damage, Renaldo said. The three occupants of the home were able to get out of the home unharmed. The initial investigation into the cause of the fire, Renaldo said, suggests that it is "electrical in nature."
Four firefighters were hospitalized overnight, with two who suffered first-degree burns to their chest, back and arms released early Friday morning. A third firefighter was released from the hospital Friday afternoon after suffering first-degree burns to his face, arms, chest and back.
Renaldo and other department leaders visited with the injured firefighters Thursday night and again spent time with the most seriously injured firefighter on Friday morning.
"He got separated from the line, and got disoriented," Renaldo said. "He was physically exhausted at one point, because he couldn't find his way back out of the attic."
The most seriously injured firefighter was on an attack line in the attic when he became disoriented, said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Bill Reinaldo. He suffered burns to his hands when he removed his gloves in an attempt to activate his “man-down” button.
— Keith McShea (@ByKeithMcShea) January 11, 2019
Renaldo noted that the firefighter followed his training for this circumstance.
“He got down in the prone position and tried to exercise shallow breathing to extend his air supply, and just stay there until help arrived, which it did it very quickly.
"I want to commend the crews of Rescue Engine 33 and other members of both of those companies that discovered him, and evacuated him to the second floor, and then outside, and on to the hospital."
Renaldo said that the firefighter "attempted to initiate the mayday himself, but was unsuccessful."
The "mayday" call was sent out by a member of the rescue company who discovered the firefighter, via radio, Renaldo said.
"He knew he was in trouble," Renaldo said. "He was unable to physically activate his man-down button."
Renaldo estimated that the firefighter was down for only "a couple of minutes, a very short period of time."
Most of the burns incurred by the other firefighters were steam burns, Renaldo explained.
"When you put water on the fire, it creates water vapor and a lot of times, super-heated steam, which in this case is what happened, and that super-heated steam can permeate our protective gear," he said.
"Our command staff visited with the injured firefighters and their families," Renaldo said. "Last night there was a large contingent of firefighters and family members on hand to lend their support and do what they can to support the family members."
This is the third serious fire on the East Side in the last month, all of which have been fought by Engine 33.
"It's been a tough couple of weeks with the fatalities, and injures," Renaldo said. "We're reaching out and doing everything we can. We have coordinators from the city and the union, grief counselors. We're doing everything we can internally and externally to deal with this."