The call arrived at the emergency dispatch center at 1:06 a.m. Wednesday. A man yelled that “bunch of smoke and flames” was coming from the roof of a building in Southeast Portland.
The operator gathered information — 12045 S.E. Pardee St., not too far from 122nd Avenue – and began entering it into the computer.
The crew at Station 7, the Portland Fire & Rescue house about a mile away from the fire, was asleep, but not deeply. Last year, Station 7 responded to 8,876 calls for service, making it the city’s second busiest fire station. Crews learn to sleep lightly.
At 1:09 a.m. a station house alarm sounded.
Firefighters listened for the alarm tones. Outfitted with thousands of feet of fire hose, 500 gallons of water and a pump, Engine 7 has a specific tone. So does Truck 7, with its 100-foot-long aerial ladder and tiller driver in the back to help maneuver the 60-foot-long rig. Then there’s a multiple apparatus alarm – send everything and everyone with flashing lights and sirens.
This call was a multiple apparatus alarm, a Code 3.
When the tones faded, the voice of the 911 dispatcher came over the building’s speaker system, telling the crews they were headed to a fire at Hope N Care, a residential care facility with at least 20 residents.
Truck 7 was out the door in 47 seconds.
Engine 7 in 87 seconds.
On the way, a dispatcher told the firefighters there were reports of people trapped inside the building. Ambulances were sent. More than 100 firefighters from across the city, joined by firefighters from the Clackamas County and the Gresham fire departments, arrived to battle the blaze.
Assuming command was Station 7 Battalion Chief Jerry Bartolome, 50 years old and on the job 24 years. He speaks of the fire as if he were a football coach, talking about assignments, training and the roles each firefighter plays.
“This was a fire where people, many people, can easily die,” he said. “To make sure that didn’t happen it took a total team effort. Lots of unsung heroes here. This operation will go down in the history of Portland fires.”
All 22 residents of the home were safely evacuated. There were no injuries among them.
Pundits say that a photograph is worth 1,000 words.
But excerpts from official fire reports filed by a number of firefighters at the scene capture what happened early Wednesday in Southeast Portland far better than a dramatic photo showing flames against the dark sky.
A few of the initial rescues were made going out the front door. This was unsustainable as there were hose lines on the ground and operating. Occupants were either carried out, dragged out, removed through a window, or wheeled out after being hastily put on a wheelchair.
As I got off the truck, I took tools to force doors knowing we had a high probability of locked door both exterior and interior. As I entered the building, I encountered a worker of the facility bringing residents of the facility out to the A side main entrance, I asked him how to access the hallway where he was bringing the victims from. He told me access was located on the East side (delta side) and pointed how to get there, I passed on that info to my truck 7 counterparts.
I ran to the hallway and started a right-hand search and forced the first bedroom I came to, I found a woman on her bed, I was met in the room by a bystander who had broken out her window in attempt to save anyone inside.
I picked up the woman and handed her out the window to the bystander and he assured me he could carry her to a safe place on the Alpha side of the building.
I then went to the next bedroom on my right-hand search and forced the door, was met by another victim who was a larger than average person. A firefighter across the hall to help me load them onto a wheelchair that I had found in her room and wheeled her out the Charlie emergency exit. I went back inside and went to the next bedroom, found a man, and assisted him outside on the Charlie side.
As I was making my way down the hallway, checking rooms as I went, I came across an elderly man crawling very slowly toward the Charlie exit. I assisted him to his feet and walked him outside where an employee of the care home received him.
I came across on the left-hand side had a resident in bed. Her room was pretty clear however there was fire coming out of any openings in the ceiling around light fixtures. I picked her up and proceeded to carry her out the front door. By the time I got to the front door I was losing my grip on her and I ran into a firefighter who was coming back into the structure after rescuing another resident. He could see I was losing my grip on her, so he took her and carried her the rest of the way.
Although the cause remains under investigation, it is a suspected electric fire, said Lt. Laurent Picard, the bureau’s assistant public information officer. He said in a typical attic fire, crews pull down the ceiling while others aggressively attack it with water from above and below.
That wasn’t possible in this case because residents were immobile – one, for example, was paralyzed, another missing a limb – and all required a walker or wheelchair. What Picard described as an “inferno” was burning above rooms where residents had been sleeping.
Because the fire was the attic, he said, the sprinkler system was not activated as it would have been if the heat had come from below. And time was precious. The roof and ceiling could collapse on the residents and firefighters at any moment, and toxic gas from burning materials could easily kill residents who had no access to the kind of breathing gear worn by firefighters.
“We were operating in a rescue mode right away,” said Picard. “It was about saving lives.”
Lt. Ty Callicotte, a Truck 7 officer, said all the firefighters knew it was not going to be a “garden variety residential facility fire. You get a handful of career fires and this was one of them.”
“My nozzleman goes into a room and sees fire coming from the ceiling above the man’s bed,” said Callicotte, 43. “The man puts his arms out and says, ‘I’m going to die. I can’t move’. No way. My guy got him. Let me tell you, lifting a 200-pound person in the middle of a fire as not the same as lifting a 200-pound barbell in the gym.”
He said two facility employees – caregivers Tim Spencer, 38, and Hermie Magistrado, 75 – helped firefighters.
“One guy with us had eyes as wide as a saucer,” said Callicotte. “In a fire, your instinct is to get out. But he was doing everything he could. He triple checked all the rooms to make sure all residents were out. Talk about a hero.”
Spencer, the man Callicotte called a hero, said it was “surreal.”
“I saw nothing but smoke,” said Spencer, who said his right arm was slightly burned when part of a ceiling fell on him. “I was helping the firefighters anyway I could. Wheeling people. Whatever.”
He does not consider what he did heroic.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I have two little kids and a wife. I thought about them. But then you hear people screaming. There was no way I was going to turn my back and run. These residents are like my mom and dad. I take care of them.”
All the residents have been moved to rooms in another part the facility, said Jordon Wilson, the Hope N Care administrator.
“Luckily, we have a third building on site that was just renovated,” he said. “It has 25 rooms and was empty.” Residents were moved to that building the day of the fire.
The first alarm came in at 1:09 a.m.
At 1:44 a.m. part of the roof collapsed.
But all the residents had been evacuated, and the firefighters had been ordered out of the building in anticipation of structure failure. Paramedics and Portland police officers helped move the evacuated residents a safe distance away from the fire. TriMet buses also responded to the fire and helped keep people warm.
And then firefighters went back in to put out the fire.
At 2:25 a.m. the fire was under control.
“This was the Super Bowl of fires,” said Bartolome, Station 7′s battalion chief. “We got to work and did what we had to do.”