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Little victories buoy injured Buffalo firefighter's resolve to return

It’s been two months since firefighter Eric Whitehead suffered third-degree burns to his hands during a house fire on Butler Avenue. Whitehead, who was released Feb. 11 from Erie County Medical Center, continues today to receive occupational therapy three times each week.

“I’m getting better every day, feeling better every day,” Whitehead said on Thursday. “I’ve always been a strong-willed person. It’s always taken a lot to keep me down."

Whitehead was hit on the head by falling debris on the night of Jan. 10 during an intense and smoky fire that broke out on the second floor of a two-story house at 82 Butler. Whitehead, one of four firefighters taken to ECMC, became disoriented after his helmet and hose line were knocked off and his air supply was disconnected.

In his efforts to locate the hose and reconnect it, he removed his gloves, exposing his hands to the inferno. Every day, Whitehead thinks about the fellow firefighters who came to his rescue.

“It was almost like hitting the lottery, but I knew they would come,” he said. “The fire was really hot and there was poor visibility.”

The Buffalo Fire Department started a Safety Committee after the Butler Avenue fire to review the incident and recommend protocol changes if necessary, said Fire Commissioner William Renaldo.

“Any time department members are injured, we make a self-assessment and look at all aspects of the incident,” Renaldo said. “We’re working diligently with training personnel to review our procedures.”

Buffalo firefighters at the scene of a Butler Street house fire Jan. 10 that almost cost Eric Whitehead his life. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The fire did at least $100,000 of damage. The three occupants of the home were able to get out of the home unharmed. The initial investigation into the cause of the fire suggested that it was "electrical in nature," Renaldo said at the time. It was the third serious fire on the East Side in a month, all of which were fought by Engine 33.

Whitehead said his family continues to worry about him returning to the job.

“Everyone is a little on edge about me going back to work. They’re a little more worried and cautious,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead shares that caution, he said. While he has been given no timetable on when he can return to the job, his resolve is strong and buoyed by the small victories he experiences daily during therapy – like being able to turn a doorknob or putting on his socks.

“I want to go back,” he said.

'They saved his life': Buffalo firefighters rescue one of their own in East Side fire

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