The Story Behind Our Unit Citation of Valor
The Eye of the Needle
Check out the personal gear, give the rig the once-over, pick up the need to know stuff from the off-going firefighter, vaguely discuss a few items at muster, drink a couple of cups of coffee and get ready for the shift. It was another day at Fire Station 6. I had been a firefighter on what was then called the Las Vegas Fire Department for fifteen years. I hadn’t a clue that this was going to be one of the most significant days of my career.
At 7:37am, a few minutes into our shift the tones came in. “Fire in a building. Two story apartment building, smoke and flame showing. We have multiple calls.” Pulling on my boots, I was reminded of the previous shift by the dampness and lingering smell. My hood, although dry, also carried the scent of a “worker”. And it was damned sure time to go to work again.
My name is Allan Albaitis. On January 18, 1982 my father pinned my badge on me and an adventure began. It is now a new millennium and I am in my 19th year on Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. It’s been several years now since then rookie Ken Teeters and myself sat aboard that Pierce TeleSquirt pumper with acting Captain Cal Henry and Engineer Mike Amburgey and pulled out of the fire station toward a working fire. But, in some ways, it seems like yesterday.
En route, we were advised that someone was attempting to extinguish the fire with a garden hose. We shrugged looking at each other as we cinched straps, and felt the tightening in the gut that comes when you know you’re going in. Then the headsets brought the message. It was a double shot of grim reporting. “We have reports of at least one occupant jumping from the second floor and… and a confirmation of a person trapped inside.” Now all systems are pegged. The thoughts are a swirl. As we neared the complex, it became clear that we, Engine 6 , were going to be first in. Simultaneously doing last second checkouts and going through a menu of tactics and strategies I agreed with the Captain’s plan. We would pull the front cross lay giving us 150 ft. of 1-3/4” attack line. Since it was a one way in one way out apartment there was no attacking from the unburned side. We would walk into the blaze head on.
As we rounded the last corner we saw the source of the column of smoke. There were dozens of onlookers, some transfixed, some wildly waving, many shouting and pointing. There was a hydrant close by so a water supply wouldn’t be a problem. My seat is behind the Captain and the fire was on the right side so I grabbed the nozzle and Ken grabbed the loops. There was a crowd encircling a woman lying on her back and we had to make our way around her. A sooty-faced civilian was still directing a pitiful stream through a broken window. We flaked out the line and, crouching at the open door, waited for water.
What happened next wasn’t out of the book. Many of the neighbors were yelling some in English, some in Spanish, “She’s still in there, we know she’s still in there.” There was still fire but it mostly seemed to be venting out of the window. From the doorway I could see that to the right the way seemed passable. We waited and still had no water. There was a problem. The cries from the crowd were louder and I knew that someone was inside, dying. It was time to go against all professional wisdom and take a chance. This is exactly the kind of thing that I would read about and think, “Those idiots, what were they thinking? It’s guys like that that give us professionals a bad name.” I told the Captain that I thought I would be okay doing a quick life search and that if I didn’t find her in two minutes we would back out. I went in with Teeters and no hose line.
We crawled beyond what little light the doorway provided and were soon in a hallway to the single bedroom and bathroom. For some unknown reason, I went past the bedroom door and went straight to the bath at the end of the hall. I had Teeters on my heels at all times. With my helmet light and a handlight I had less than a foot of visibility. I tried to push open the door but it was blocked… by a body. I pressed my mask against the six inch wide opening. We had found her. But was she alive? I figured that all the door needed was a good shove and it would allow me to slip through. Not to be. The door moved an inch or two but I needed ten times that to get in the doorway. I just couldn’t get a firm purchase on the carpet. I tried again and the door just sprang back. The clock was ticking.
I needed a foothold, a doorway or a piece of furniture against which I could brace my foot and put some real force behind. Suddenly, I got the idea. I quickly explained to Ken that I would need him to lie on his back and brace his feet in the doorways of the bedroom and closet across the hall. I then could place my feet on his shoulders and push against the wedged body in the bathroom. The clock was still ticking.
I was about to give up and try something different when, with a dull thud, it slipped opened almost a foot. I think her arm rolled under her and instantly I had enough room to squeeze through the opening. Once inside, I had to drag her several feet to my right to allow the door to open completely enough to drag her through. She was not a small person and the effort of the initial search, trying to open the door, the ambient heat, and now the awkward job of moving an unconscious person in a cramped, smoky, dangerous environment was kicking my ass. I managed to move her enough to allow the opening of the door and Teeters was waiting. Now to get her out. It seemed that hours had passed.
Teeters took her arms and I, using the waistband of her pants, drug her down the hallway toward what we thought was the front door. The smoke was still thick and somehow once we cleared the hallway we started to angle away from the front door toward the kitchen. Then, out of the haze, Cal reached out and pulled Ken toward the faint glow of sunlight coming in the doorway. There we were met by Paramedic Tommy Grayson and then Firefighter Mark Robles. They dragged her onto the lawn where, assisted by the AMR ambulance paramedics, they began advanced cardiac life support.
The pumper problem had been fixed and the remaining fire extinguished. While Ken and I were regrouping I glanced at the cluster of rescuers around our patient and to my sad disappointment realized that full blown CPR was in progress. As any experienced first responder will attest, it’s hard to suck a soul back into a body. I looked at the heart monitor and saw what was nearly a flat line. In twenty three years I’ve never seen a pattern that slight brought back to a normal rhythm. After the third defibrillation shock I had to look away. Our gal was going into the light and her days of laughing and crying were coming to an end. She was shortly whisked away, compressions and ventilations in progress. Sweaty and filthy, stinking of the smoke that not long ago was Lucy's home, Ken and I watched her being loaded into the ambulance for what was sure to be the last ride of her life.
We assisted with overhaul and, while standing in Lucy’s bedroom, I saw a photograph on her dresser that caused me to feel a heavy sense of sadness. It was a fairly recent photo of her receiving her high school diploma. It struck me that here was a person who had felt that it’s never too late. As a senior citizen she had returned to school and was not,like so many, just enduring life, she was participating. Or, had been. Now it was indeed, too late.
We removed charred furniture, pulled some ceiling, and soaked any suspicious debris. The atmosphere was heavy and somber. More than just an empathetic response it was a feeling that we had failed. All the rationale and logic and toughness of an old fire dog didn’t help. Oh sure, on the surface you could say, “Well, it was the old gal’s time”, or, “It was meant to be. We did our best, screw it.” But, the firefighters I know, the ones there that day and whenever a life is lost can fake stoicism all they want. But I’ll call bullshit on that every time. I know it hurts. We are in this to win, not to lose and when someone dies, rational or not, logical or not, we feel like we’ve lost. And that’s a hurting, helpless place to be.
As we were wrapping up the scene, the reality of the day hit me. It was still morning. This was only the beginning of the shift. It was going to be a long day. I checked my refreshed air pack which Amburgey had thoughtfully changed out. As I hoisted it into the jumpseat I thought back on how, less than an hour ago we were blasting through traffic headed toward a column of smoke and flame, supercharged with adrenaline and so damned sure we were going to win. Now, the fire is out, the crowd is dispersed and there wasn’t anything left inside but a tired, hollow feeling. All of the, “If only…” and ”I shoulda…” or “If I coulda…” thoughts were doing their sadistic parade in my head. Just let ‘em go, I thought. They’ll be gone in a few days. How long can a parade last? Hose and hand tools were loaded, the building was secured, units were returning to service and just as command was about to be terminated , I caught Tim Syzmanski our PIO on his cell phone.
I could imagine that he was briefing the media and that he was sadly reporting that the national fire death statistics were just increased by one. Instead, I heard something quite different. “Yes. Yes. Oh yes…I’ll tell them. They’re standing right here.” Ken and I were only a few feet from Tim and looked at each other wondering what in the hell he could be talking about.
“Attention all hands. Hey, everybody, listen up.” All of the remaining firefighters, paramedics, engineers and captains stopped what they were doing and looked at Tim. The next words out of his mouth were almost difficult to believe. He must’ve sensed our shock because he said it again. “Your gal is sitting up talking in the emergency room. She’s gonna make it.”
“Gonna make it…” “Sitting up…” For a full three seconds we just looked at Tim, stunned. Then we “heard” him. I felt a feeling almost like a physical warmth followed by a bewildered nearly giddy feeling. Looking back it was somehow similar to the way I felt when I heard, “Congratulations, You have a son.” That may sound strange, actually it sounds strange to me, but I remember that was the feeling. There is a soul alive who, but for your efforts, would not be. Maybe that’s the connection. I certainly wasn’t in an intellectualizing frame of mind. I, we were suddenly shot from some sad dim place to that so important moment. Ken and I were literally off the ground in a school kid high five and grinning like juvenile delinquents on nitrous oxide. It was like the day I was told I was going to be in the next fire academy. You know, one of those grins that just doesn’t go away. There were cheers and clapping and animals sounds. All of the crews were pumped. We did what we are trained to do and it all went right. “She’s gonna make it.” Man there aren’t too many phrases that can squeeze a firefighter’s heart like that. “Gonna make it,” wow!
Soon we were back at the station and after loading fresh hose, refueling the blowers, and restocking supplies it was nearly lunchtime. The phone rang as we sat down to eat. It was Tim. Being the consummate PIO that he is he had been in contact with the hospital and was reporting that our patient was being put on a ventilator and moved to ICU but that this was standard and all was well. The second patient, the one who had jumped from the second floor had suffered a broken back and although she was full term pregnant, had no permanent damage and a week later delivered a healthy baby boy. Cal, Mike, Ken and myself decided that we would stop by ICU that evening and see our miracle girl.
When we introduced ourselves to the nurse in charge of ICU she lit up and said, “Oh yes, Lucille Frenz. Follow me. She's right down the hallway.” We had all seen the array of high tech gadgetry that is the core of Intensive Care so that wasn’t what provided the jarring shock upon seeing her. It was just seeing her… alive. By then we knew what incredible odds she had overcome just to be in this room.
Back at her apartment before we cleared the scene, Tim pointed out the kitchen light fixture. Bear in mind that I found Lucy not more than 15 feet from there.The plastic dome had melted hanging to the floor and created what almost looked like a distorted old firehose. It is over six feet tall. As a matter of fact, Tim still has it in his office today. He pointed out that the heat necessary to do that would not have been survivable even at 15 feet. The riddle became even stranger after Xrays and tests in emergency revealed no damage to the lungs. But the Colomboesque E.R. doc solved the mystery after deciphering blood gasses, cardiac enzymes and additional Xrays. “She wasn’t breathing when the temperature climbed to that untenable range.” He went on to explain, “For whatever reason, probably because all the oxygen had been used up by the fire, she went into respiratory arrest. So when the room became superheated she wasn’t breathing. If she had been, her lungs would have been destroyed. This was probably happening just as you were arriving on scene. Her only chance to survive was not to be breathing. Then she had to have someone show up, find her, drag her out, and deliver her into the hands of a team capable of reviving her and doing just that in a very narrow time window to avoid permanent brain damage. This had to happen within four to six minutes.The odds of all of this happening the way they did are astronomical. It would make the eye of a needle look like the St. Louis Arch. This one was a million to one.”
Her eyes were only opened slightly but when the nurse explained, “These are the firefighters who saved your life, Lucille,” she looked right at us and in spite of the tube, silently mouthed the words, “Thank you”. It was a moment I don’t think any of us will forget.
As if the day hadn’t been enough, back at the station a news crew was assembled and they took a sound bite from each of us for the 11pm news. The headline was, “Local woman survives blaze.” The newspaper had a small article (small when they live… big when they die) These are a couple of lines from the article:
Upon learning Frenz was going to live, firefighters at the scene high-fived each other and slapped backs in celebration. “To tell you the truth, she didn't have much longer to live,” said Allan Albaitis, a 15-year veteran of the Las Vegas Fire Department who went into the burning apartment to rescue the woman with Capt. Cal Henrie and rookie Kenneth Teeters. “It's a great feeling, but it wasn't just one guy doing it. Everything had to go just right.”
Yep, She’s gonna make it. We slept well that night.
It was a couple of weeks later when I called back and spoke to her. She had no neurological deficit (fancy for brain damage) and only slight burns to her hands. She was going home that day, Mother’s day, 1997. And a life continues.
Because of the incredible outcome of that event the five of us were presented with the Unit Citation of Valor and received a Special Congressional Recognition. The ceremony was top flight. Entering a huge formal luncheon awash in VIPs to bagpipes and a standing ovation was a one of a kind feeling. But the most special part of the entire experience was the silent response from the lips of Lucky Lucy, “Thank you”.
Thank you, Lucille for having the will to survive and giving meaning to this sometimes thankless job. From all of us at Las Vegas Fire & Rescue, AMR, UMC and your caring neighbors, Happy Mother’s Day.