Badly burned fire­fighter shares ac­count of res­cue

Blinded by smoke, White­head counted on train­ing and ‘brothers’ for sur­vival

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Maki Becker

Fire­fighter Eric White­head lay on the floor of the burn­ing at­tic, blinded by smoke and steam.

He couldn’t find his hose line.

His hands were burned. But he wasn’t afraid.

“I just knew my brothers were there,” White­head re­called.

A month af­ter be­ing pulled from the burn­ing house on But­ler Av­enue, White­head re­mains in Erie County Med­i­cal Cen­ter, where doc­tors are treat­ing third-de­gree burns on his hands.

Yet he couldn’t be more thank­ful – to both his fel­low fire­fight­ers and to those help­ing him re­cover. He looks for­ward to the day he’s back at work with his crew on En­gine 21.

“They saved my life,” White­head told The Buf­falo News in a phone in­ter­view from his room in the burn unit.

One way out

On the night of Jan. 10, White­head was the act­ing of­fi­cer in charge when the call came in at about 8:30 p.m.: a fire at 82 But­ler Ave.

When En­gine 21 ar­rived, White­head saw smoke pour­ing out of the sec­ond floor. He and his crew grabbed a hose line and headed into the house.

On the sec­ond floor, White­head didn’t see any smoke.

“We could see it com­ing from the at­tic,” he said.

At­tic fires are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult, ac­cord­ing to Phil Ryan, a re­tired Buf­falo fire­fighter who wrote about them in a first-per­son ac­count with The Buf­falo News af­ter the But­ler Av­enue fire.

“All fire­fight­ers know the dreaded phrase ‘at­tic fire.’ They are a fire­fighter’s night­mare, and for good rea­son,” Ryan wrote.

“In the city a ma­jor­ity of the hous­ing is the typ­i­cal 2½-story res­i­den­tial. In most of those build­ings the at­tic is an un­fin­ished stor­age area, which was the case at this lo­ca­tion,” Ryan wrote.

Egress is what makes at­tic fires so dan­ger­ous.

“One way in and one way out,” he wrote. “Some­times there is a win­dow at the front of an at­tic, usu­ally the op­po­site end from you and three sto­ries

above ground. So a fire­fighter’s life line is the fire line you dragged in. It’s your wa­ter source and, more im­por­tantly, it’s your only way out.”

In trou­ble, but calm

White­head doesn’t re­call ev­ery­thing that hap­pened in­side the But­ler Av­enue at­tic.

He re­mem­bers a lot of smoke and in­tense heat.

“I was fight­ing the fire and some­thing hit me,” White­head said. “When it hit me I lost my hel­met and my hose line.”

White­head be­came dis­ori­ented. He couldn’t find his hose. He couldn’t see. That’s when his train­ing kicked in. He tried to con­trol his breath­ing – tak­ing slow, shal­low breaths like he’d been taught at the academy.

“You try to keep a cool head and con­serve your air,” he said. “It’s al­most like mo­men­tum. You have to slow down and don’t panic.”

He was able to stay calm be­cause he knew help was on the way.

Nev­er­the­less, White­head was so dis­ori­ented and ex­hausted in the at­tic that he was un­able to hit his “man-down” but­ton, Fire Com­mis­sioner Wil­liam Re­naldo told re­porters the day af­ter the fire.

“He knew he was in trou­ble,” Re­naldo said.

And he did ex­actly what he was sup­posed to do.

“He got down in the prone po­si­tion and tried to ex­er­cise shal­low breath­ing to ex­tend his air sup­ply, and just stay there un­til help ar­rived, which it did it very quickly,” Re­naldo said.

Re­naldo es­ti­mated just a cou­ple of min­utes passed be­fore fel­low fire­fight­ers found him.

Another fire­fighter hit his own mayday but­ton to sig­nal an emer­gency.

Then the fire­fight­ers picked up White­head’s 5-foot-11 inch frame and car­ried him down the two-and-a-half flights to safety.

“I re­mem­ber a lit­tle bit,” White­head said. “I re­mem­ber the feel­ing they were there for me. They saved my life, just like I knew they would. I didn’t have a doubt. I knew they were com­ing.”

Find­ing his call­ing

White­head didn’t start out as a fire­fighter; for eight years, he worked in a bank. But sit­ting be­hind a desk didn’t suit him.

So he gave fire­fight­ing a try.

He’d al­ways been ath­letic. He played foot­ball at Ben­nett High School and later at Gram­bling State Uni­ver­sity in Louisiana.

“And then af­ter that, I kind of al­ways have been into fit­ness and stayed in shape,” White­head said.

He runs around the loop in Delaware Park and hits the stair-step­per at the gym. He loves swim­ming, in­ter­val train­ing, cal­is­then­ics and weights.

White­head, who scored a 94 on the fire­fighter exam, joined the Buf­falo Fire Depart­ment in May 2015. He loved the ca­ma­raderie and his work mo­ti­vated him to con­tinue to be in top shape.

“I felt like I fi­nally found my call­ing in life,” he said. “This is what I’m here to do.”

He worked at a num­ber of fire­houses be­fore putting in a bid with En­gine 21 on Jef­fer­son Av­enue and Kings­ley Street, one of the busiest fire­houses in the city.

“I’m kind of lucky to make it to a busy house like that,” White­head said.

Hope for full re­cov­ery

It wasn’t un­til he was out­side of the burn­ing house that White­head started to feel the pain in his hands.

He would later learn he had suf­fered third-de­gree burns – the most se­ri­ous kind. The dam­age ex­tended into the tis­sue of his hands.

He didn’t dare look at his hands once out­side the house, he said.

“I didn’t want to see. I didn’t look at them. I knew I was hurt bad,” White­head said.

He also knew one other thing: He was happy to be out of that burn­ing at­tic.

An am­bu­lance raced White­head to ECMC as Buf­falo po­lice stopped traf­fic to help get him there as fast as pos­si­ble.

White­head has been at the hospi­tal ever since.

He faces a long road to re­cov­ery and is un­der­go­ing an ar­ray of treat­ments to heal his hands. On Fri­day, his phys­i­cal ther­apy in­volved do­ing fin­ger move­ments.

“They’re tak­ing real good care of me,” he said of his doc­tors and nurses.

He’s over­whelmed by the sup­port of his fel­low fire­fight­ers and the Buf­falo com­mu­nity. A fundraiser was held for him last week­end at the Black­thorn Res­tau­rant and Pub on Seneca Street. White­head’s fiancée vis­its ev­ery day. A cou­ple of times a week, he’s al­lowed to go to a con­fer­ence room where he can play with his two daugh­ters and son.

White­head, 33, is hope­ful he’ll make a full re­cov­ery – and that he’ll be back in a fire­house.

“That’s what I’m hop­ing,” he said. In the mean­time, White­head has a mes­sage for all of the people who made sure he got out of that at­tic and who helped him with his re­cov­ery.

“Thank you for sav­ing my life,” he said. “Thank you for be­ing there when I needed you. To my fire brothers and the hospi­tal staff, thank you.”

“I re­mem­ber the feel­ing they were there for me. They saved my life, just like I knew they would. I didn’t have a doubt. I knew they were com­ing.” – Buf­falo Fire­fighter Eric White­head

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