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Editorial: Injured firefighter’s story shows again risks of keeping city safe

Firefighters are among the brave men and women who leave the house everyday not knowing if they will return.

It’s always possible that the next call could be the last. But they take it, anyway. Sometimes they are injured, or worse, trying to save life and property.

Such is the case with firefighter Eric Whitehead, who last month sprang into one of the most dangerous situations a firefighter can face – an attic on fire. Whitehead, thanks to his fellow firefighters, emerged alive but with third-degree burns to his hands. He and the colleagues who rescued him offer a courageous lesson in selflessness.

His story recently told in The News offers insight into what it is like to face danger, alone in the dark but trusting that colleagues are searching.

Whitehead responded to a fire at 82 Butler Ave. The call came in about 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 10, and the man who had once worked at a bank for eight years before joining the Buffalo Fire Department in May 2015 was the acting officer in charge.

As News staff reporter Maki Becker described, when Engine 21 arrived, Whitehead spotted smoke emanating from the second floor. He and his crew took a hose line and headed into the house. But they did not see smoke on the second floor. It was coming from the attic and, as retired Buffalo firefighter Phil Ryan wrote in his Jan. 24 My View column, “Braving an attic blaze, firefighters battle on,” attic fires are tough and a “firefighter’s nightmare, and for good reason.”

The city’s older housing stock with 2 1/2-story residences with mostly unfinished attics are difficult environments. Ryan described the “one way in and one way out” condition and if there is a window, it generally sits opposite the firefighter. The firefighter’s lifeline is the fire line he dragged in. It is the water source and exit strategy.

Whitehead recalls smoke and heat and that something hit him. He lost his helmet and his hose line and became disoriented. The blackness and inability to see, even in a controlled fire, is hard to adequately describe.

Whitehead relied on his training and took slow, shallow breaths. He was unable to hit his “man-down” button but he remained calm. His actions are a tribute to the firefighter and his training at the academy, reinforced by the department.

Fire Commissioner William Renaldo estimated it took a couple of minutes before fellow firefighters found Whitehead and carried him down two-and-a-half flights.

With a long recovery in front of him, this hero wants to return to the job. It is because of men and women like him that the rest of us can rest assured.

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