Photo Source: Pixabay
The following events are true. However, the names of locations, people, and apparatus numbers have been changed to preserve the privacy of those involved.
I have been fortunate in that I have never lost a coworker suddenly at an emergency scene throughout the three departments I’ve worked for in the last 25 years of being a fire fighter. This is the story of the day that I thought I lost everyone right before my eyes.
It was a nice, sunny, cool day, and I was working on the snorkel out of headquarters in a small town in the greater Boston area. The town used to be a thriving manufacturing town, but it has now fallen into economic distress. At the time, I was assigned to the snorkel, and it was my month to drive. A snorkel is a ladder truck with a rather specialized aerial device which has an 85 foot two-piece articulated arm with a knuckle in the middle and a two-man bucket at the end. A call came in for a manhole fire at the intersection of Main St. We responded out of headquarters with the deputy chief who drives his own car, Engine Two (an engine is the vehicle which pumps the water, and it usually has a three or four man crew on it), Ladder Two (which is the snorkel and was the vehicle I was operating), and the rescue vehicle (ours was heavy, an 18 foot tool box—there is no bed in it like an ambulance).
Upon arrival, we had heavy, thick, dark smoke with a green tinge coming out of an underground electrical vault, the type of machines that are under sidewalks with the heavy steel grating over the top. The deputy chief drove through the intersection and parked on Winter St. Engine Two went into the intersection and stopped in the center of it. I stopped Ladder Two about 100 feet short of the intersection. My lieutenant, Dan, who’s a pissa guy and comes from a firefighter family, looked at me and asked, “What are you doing?”
I told him, “I just thought it was standard and a good idea to stay back a little short (which in fire fighter talk means staying a little away from the scene) just because a manhole might explode or something (not thinking that would ever happen—just following procedures).”
He said, “OK,” and we walked up with the crew from the rescue.
We closed the streets down, marked the area off with tape, and settled in to keep people from walking right into the smoke (which they tend to do) or walk under the yellow tape (which they tend to do). We then waited for the arrival of the power company. There’s not a lot we can do with the situation until the power is cut off except to make sure nobody gets hurt. While we were standing around talking, one of the members of the company noticed that the traffic lights were all messed up going all the way down Main Street. Somebody pointed out to me that I had left the Opticom on (a small strobe light device that changes the traffic lights when we are responding to emergencies) as Ladder Two goes down the roadway. So, I went back to the truck to turn it off, leaving the rest of the guys standing by Engine Two.
As I approached the truck, I took my helmet off. I placed it on the seat and stepped up into the truck. I then reached across to the middle of the ceiling right above the windshield, which was where the button to control the Opticom was, and switched it off. It’s there so either I or the officer can operate it. I stepped back down on the ground, and I was reaching for my helmet when I heard BANG! A loud crack of an explosion occurred, not a long rolling Hollywood kaboom but a sharp, extremely loud crack like the initial crack of a lightning strike that was too close for comfort.
I immediately looked where the sound came from, which was towards engine two’s position, and the engine was completely obscured by thick black and green smoke. I noticed two dark objects about four or five feet above Engine Two that look like they were suspended in air, almost hovering for a split second, and then falling back down into the smoke. I heard the dark objects hit the ground and realize they were manhole covers.
Believe it or not, one of the first things that crossed my mind was returning back to the station by myself and seeing all the guys’ shoes lined up where they kick them off to get in the turnout gear (turnout gear is the protective fire fighting ensemble that fire fighters wear: boots, pants, coat, helmet, and any other needed accessories like gloves and hoods).
That image passed quickly though, and I remember reaching for my portable radio microphone to sound the alarm, but instead, I quickly changed my mind and ran towards the smoke. As I approached, the first person I could see coming out of the thick black and green cloud and walking away from me was the shift commander Deputy S. Let me say something about Deputy S, he is hands-down the best shift commander/chief fire officer I have ever worked with. He was a cool, calm, collected, super-intelligent, really knows his shit kind of guy. He was also extremely experienced with legitimately 1200 to 1500 fires under his belt. When I got up to him, I grabbed him by the shoulders and turned them towards me. He had his hands to his face and was rubbing his eyes. That’s when I realized he was giggling like a little freakin’ kid. It’s not uncommon in those kinds of intense happenings that the guys, including me, react by laughing—it’s a kind of way to cope with it—or maybe he just thought it was funny. I asked him if he was all right.
He said, “Yes.”
I said to him, “Should I do a headcount?!”
He looked at me and could tell how serious I was taking this and said with his command voice, “Yeah sure, that’s a great idea. Get it done.”
As I turned, the next person I saw coming out of the smoke was another very experienced fire fighter named Steven. He was walking like Frankenstein because he must’ve been facing one of the manholes and got grit and sand in his eyes. I grabbed him and asked if he was OK.
He just said, “Yeah, I gotta wash my eyes out.”
I did my headcount and everybody was pretty much OK. Apparently, I was the only one who almost ended up with the code brown in my shorts over the situation.
After the dust settled, the two manhole covers that were in the air landed right back in their holes offset and slightly ajar, and as I looked down Main Street, all the manhole covers were slightly displaced but still in their holes. Somehow, some kind of combustible vapor ended up in the power conduits and vaults under Main St. and ignited. Besides getting hit by the manhole covers, the men could’ve been injured from the street collapsing or the impact from the explosion or even burned by the flash—especially if the explosion had been more powerful.
After the call was over, we returned back to quarters, had a meal, and talked about it. There was plenty of nervous laughter in the room. I couldn’t help thinking about all those firefighters in the past who have returned back to quarters missing the coworkers that they responded to the call with, and I can only pray to God that never happens to me.
Mark Aliberti was born and raised In Winthrop, Massachusetts. He is the youngest of six children and graduated from Winthrop High School. Mark spent four years in the Air Force in the late 80s as a security specialist, has been in the fire service for 25 years on three different departments in the greater Boston Area, has been teaching in firefighter disciplines for about the last decade and a half, and was a member of an urban search and rescue team as a canine handler and search team manager. Mark has been married for 20 years, has two teenage sons, and is currently a fire company officer in a small city department in the greater Boston area.
“Although the years may have taken a toll on me physically and tested my patience in many ways, my love and passion for the fire service has not diminished, and my want and need to bring up the next generation to make the fire service the best it can possibly be has not wavered.”