Firefighter Captain Greg Lawler has been in the business a long time has seen and heard many life stories affected by fire, here he shares one with a unique perspective that brings us all back to one common sense conclusion.
It was 11:43 pm on September 23, 1973, a typical fall night in Texas, slight showers on an otherwise warm and humid night. I awakened; I really don’t know why. I was confused and disoriented. It seemed like it took forever to find my bedroom door to the hallway. When I was able to open it I was almost overcome by unbearable heat and thick black smoke. In a state of near panic, I struck at the bedroom window with my fist, desperately searching for air. That was the last act I remembered.
I came to and found myself outside surrounded by chaos and confused as firefighters were shooting questions at me. Where are your children? I didn’t know.
Smoke bellowed from my new house and flames leaped from the rooftop. My house was burning and I did not know where my family was. My wife was nearby I could hear her screams. Her sooty face was streaked with tears.
We were escorted to the street where an ambulance waited. A firefighter brought us our youngest son, John, who was only two at the time. He had been sheltered from the fire behind a closed door and now found solace in his mother’s arms. But where is Joe? Joe is almost four and the firefighters can’t find him. We waited and waited in the ambulance.
Finally a firefighter rushed Joe into the ambulance. My son lay in the firefighters arms, lifeless, his eyes shut and his hair looked silver; his body gray. The Captain, sweaty and covered with smoke and ash is cradling Joe in his arms while pressing on his chest and breathing his own breath into Joe. Oh, God, my son is dead.
The ambulance reached the hospital and the Captain ran into the emergency room continuing to do CPR. He looked exhausted. We were all taken to different rooms for treatment. Joe was in the room across the hall from mine. No word on his condition.
I was being treated for lacerations on my wrist from breaking the window. Between the blood loss and breathing the superheated gases, my brain was just starting to recover. I lay there praying for my son’s life.
The light was turned off in my son’s room, I felt they had given up and my heart was crushed. My son was gone. Suddenly the light came back on and the doctors and nurses were working frantically over him. His pulse had returned but he was barely breathing.
Joe had fallen between his bed and the wall and was difficult to find, he suffered third degree burns and had inhaled superheated toxic gases. They were unable to cope with his seared lungs and transported him to the Burn Center at Parkland Health & Hospital System.
My wife and I spent the next month with Joe at the hospital. During his recovery, he suffered the tortures of debridement. The hospital would not allow us on the same floor while this was being done; nevertheless, it is part of healing a burn. It must be cleaned and the damaged flesh removed in order to prepare for skin grafts.
The firefighters who responded to our home visited Joe in the hospital. I realized that if it weren’t for them my son would not be with us today. What a virtuous profession! When I left the hospital I made arrangements for temporary housing and began placing applications to several fire departments. I was determined to be a firefighter.
Realizing I am near the end of a rewarding career, some personal reflection is in order. I have seen the eyes of parents who have lost their children and felt the intrinsic reward when our efforts had given them back for a second chance. I silently shared with them the memory of helplessness, uncertainty and relief that made such a profound impression on me years earlier and grateful I was able to give back.
Unfortunately, everyone does not get a second chance, so I will leave you with this most valuable nugget of advice, fires today burn twice as hot as in the 1970s. This translates into the need to escape quickly. October is Fire Safety Month and your kids will be learning about fire and escape methods. It would be great if you would join them.
Lawler shares his colleague’s sage advice and adds that many of us have very busy schedules, however; please make time, as it is very important to plan and practice home fire drills. Fires are not on a schedule.
For more information about home fire drills and a new DVD called
“FIRE IS“ available in English and Spanish please visit: www.Hand2Live.com
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