Three firefighters tumbled into the basement during a fully engulfed home fire Sunday in Woodstock as they tried to rescue a couple inside.
A day later, two of the emergency workers detailed what happened as they recover from their injuries.
The third, Woodstock fireman David Gray, remains in the intensive care unit at WellStar Kennestone Hospital.
“I feel like we got out of it because of a little luck and a lot of training,” Cherokee County fireman David Burnaugh said Monday afternoon.
Gray, Burnaugh and Cherokee fireman Matthew Richter were on the porch of the Woodstock home when the concrete floor caved in beneath them, and the adjacent wall and canopy collapsed on top of them.
“I was kind of in free-fall,” Richter said Monday. “All I could see was fire.”
The blaze started early Sunday morning in the Kingston Square subdivision, within earshot of the Dixie Speedway.
Jim and Carole Mallons, both late septuagenarians asleep in an upstairs bedroom, perished in the fire.
What began as a rescue mission for the three emergency workers instantly became a struggle to save their lives in what appeared to onlookers to be frighteningly desperate affair.
“It was one of the most heart-wrenching scenes to see three firefighters fall into a [hole in the ground] in a fully-engulfed house fire,” said Cherokee County fire department spokesman Tim Cavender, who was outside as the blazing home seemingly devoured the three firemen. “My heart just sank.”
Gray, Richter and Burnaugh were part of a four-man hose team putting water on the front section of the home.
They had advanced onto the porch and were shooting water into the living room when the ground fell out from beneath them.
“Out of nowhere, the whole two-story front wall collapsed,” Burnaugh said. “It took the porch and the overhang with it. I just saw a huge fireball.”
The men dropped about 10 feet to the basement floor, where Richter and Burnaugh found themselves dodging falling, fiery debris.
“I knew I had to keep my feet moving or I would get them pinned in,” Richter said.
Burnaugh said the trio was lucky, because the collapse seemed to snuff out much of the debris that fell into the hole with them.
Burnaugh managed to avoid the falling shards of wall, flooring and roofing and found an opening above.
“I pulled my right foot out of the debris, but my left foot was stuck,” he said. “I just pulled and took my foot out of my boot and hoped that it wouldn’t get burned.”
Burnaugh climbed the mountain of debris to the opening he’d tumbled through and found a hand waiting there to pull him free.
Once he was on the front lawn, he sent his rescuer to retrieve Richter.
“I could see [Burnaugh] struggling, and that was kind of comforting,” Richter said. “I looked over again a second time and I saw his feet were already hanging out of the hole. I was going to go right out after he did.”
Burnaugh experienced mostly bruises.
“I feel like I was in a car wreck,” he said. “My left hand was swollen up yesterday like a baseball glove.”
Richter tore his pectoral muscle from the bone during the ordeal. But, after also having to shed a protective boot to escape the cavern, he found his way to the top of the rubble and was hoisted to safety.
Gray wasn’t as lucky as the others, however.
“I looked left, and there was 10 feet of rubble,” Richter said, recalling looking for his compatriots. “That’s where Gray should’ve been.”
Woodstock Fire Chief David Soumas said Gray took the brunt of the falling wall.
“It was several bricks that were still intact that fell on top of him,” Soumas said. “It knocked his mask loose, which allowed smoke inhalation, and the pressure of the weight sitting on his chest did damage to his lungs.”
It took firefighters between 10 and 15 minutes to pull Gray from beneath the bricks, while hose teams kept water on the debris to keep it from burning him, Soumas said.
Richter said he and fellow firefighters will continue to give support to Gray and his family until he has recovered and leaves the hospital.
“He’ll walk out of there,” Gray said.
The firefighters said they recognize the danger of their jobs and willingly do what they need to do to get to victims.
“When there are victims in a house, we’re going to risk a lot to bring them out,” Richter said.
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