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Firefighters save man trapped behind safety bars in burning house

Firefighters saved a man trapped behind a barred window inside his burning house in dramatic rescue Thursday, Nov. 29.

Off-duty Battalion Chief Jason McGowan was at home when the 6:41 p.m. report came in of a structure fire at the Hogan Meadows mobile home park in the 1900 block of Southeast Palmquist Road.

McGowan lives about a half mile away and knew the bulk of Gresham Fire & Emergency Services' resources were tied up with another structure fire that came in at 6:14 p.m. at an apartment complex off of Northeast Division Street and Linden Avenue.

With five of the department's six engines at the apartment fire, as well as the department's only fire truck, McGowan jumped in his fire-department issued pickup and headed over to the mobile home park.

“As soon as I turned onto Palmquist, I saw the flames through the field at the sports park,” he said. His first thought was one of dread. With so many crews tied up with the other fire, he was concerned that crews were a long time from arriving.

Then an update came through the radio: A man — identified as 53-year-old Keith Moore — was trapped inside the burning structure.by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: GREG MUHR - Keith Moore, 53, breathes through a firefighters  oxygen mask as sparks fly while Firefighter Peter Graves, right, cuts through the metal bars trapping Moore inside his burning mobile home. Firefighter Grant Kimble, left, holds the bars ready to pry them up to free the man. Also pictured is Capt. Rick Sieverson in the red helmet.

As McGowan pulled up at the scene, he saw a sight he's never seen in his 20 years as a firefighter — a man's head sticking through the security bars covering his bedroom window, gasping for air, as his hands reached through the bars for help.

“There was black smoke coming out from all around him,” McGowan said. “And I couldn't do anything for the guy.”

Without an oxygen mask, pry tools or saws, all McGowan could do was provide updates and information to emergency dispatchers and hope fire crews arrived as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the crew from Station 31 was racing to the scene. The station, located on Southeast 174th Avenue between Division and Stark streets, is jointly staffed by Portland and Gresham firefighters. It just so happened to have a Gresham crew on duty, but as McGowan feared, it was tied up with the apartment fire on Linden Avenue.

Luckily, the apartment fire turned out to be something far more minor. Engine 31 was headed back to the station when the call about the mobile home fire came through. The fire engine turned around at Northwest Eastman Parkway and Division, and sped toward the fire, arriving six minutes and 46 seconds after the fire was reported.

McGowan took command, ordering the crew of Lt. Travis Soles and firefighters Mike Galvin, Ryan Doern and Jeremy Forrest to attack the fire in hopes of keep it from spreading any closer to the man gasping for air.

As Forrest hustled to connect the hose to a fire hydrant about 500 feet away, Galvin and Doern entered the burning house to battle the blaze.

Soles ran toward McGowan and the victim, but he too was helpless to remove the metal bars trapping the man inside.

His crew's engine was not equipped with the tools needed to remove them — that gear was on the department's only fire truck. And although the truck responds to all structure fires because it contains those life-saving saws and other tools, the truck was still at the apartment fire they'd just left. The next closest fire truck with such equipment was based in Portland on Southeast 122nd Avenue.

But Soles did have one thing the man desperately needed.

He grabbed the mask from his oxygen tank, passed it to the man and pressed it hard against his face.

“He just started breathing like crazy on it because there was just black smoke boiling out that window,” Soles said.

Two minutes and 26 seconds after Station 31's crew arrived, Truck 71 pulled up with Capt. Rick Sieverson and firefighters Peter Graves, Grant Kimble and Reggy Becker.

Kimble and Graves, each armed with special metal-cutting saws, planned to cut the two lower bars attached to the window's bottom corners.

But Kimble's saw wouldn't start.

Instead, Graves powered away. As the man continued to hold an oxygen mask to his face, sparks flew around his head while Graves cut through both bars.

As soon as Graves severed the second metal bar, Kimble pushed them up, providing an escape route.

The crew, with help from Soles, carried the man out the window. “He kept saying he's got to go back in for his cat,” Graves said, adding that he told the man that the cat would take care of itself.

Once outside, McGowan and Soles sat the man down on a curb. “He had deep soot stains in his nose and throat,” an indication he'd inhaled hot gases, Soles said. That can cause a throat to spasm and close off.

Engine 75 took over medical treatment, providing an IV and more oxygen. They treated him for smoke inhalation and possible respiratory burns before taking him to Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center for further treatment.

“He made comments about not wanting to go,” McGowan said. But the man eventually agreed to. His unidentified roommate, who was standing in the street when McGowan arrived, also was treated at a local hospital for unspecified injuries.

Both men were released early Friday, Nov. 30.

What caused the fire remains undetermined, but it was likely caused by an electrical appliance in the kitchen, said Fire Investigator Shawn Durham. The house is a total loss at $45,000 in damage.

Graves said the man was extremely lucky to be alive. “Literally, that gentleman almost lost his life,” he said.

While cutting the metal bars, Graves could tell that the smoke had already ignited into fireballs in the kitchen and living room. It was only a matter of time before the smoke in the bedroom got hot enough to cause a similar flash over, he said.

After freeing the man, Graves and Kimble cut the bars off all the windows to prevent firefighters from getting trapped inside. Becker and Sieverson cut holes in the roof to vent the smoke and flames. Soles joined firefighters Galvin and Doern inside the house to battle the fire, which had burned holes in the floor, creating still more hazards for firefighters.

Engines from stations 71, 72, 74 and 76 also helped extinguish the fire.

“It was picture perfect, the coordination between the crews,” McGowan said. “It was pretty impressive.”

Soles is thankful McGowan responded to the fire on his day off, in part because it freed him up to help the victim and fight the fire.

He's also glad he happened to be covering a shift at Station 31, which as a Portland fire station staffs every fire engine with four-person crews, instead of the three-person crews on Gresham Fire & Emergency Services' engines.

By a twist of fate, Gresham's Truck 71 had a four-person crew, too. One floater was on staff for the entire department that day and he happened to land on Truck 71.

Otherwise, if Soles arrived as part of a three-person crew, they wouldn't have been able fight the fire from inside the house. He'd have been giving oxygen to the man in the window, another firefighters would have been connecting the hose to water and the third would have had to stay outside because no less than two firefighters can enter a burning structure for safety reasons.

McGowan is thankful Engine 31 left the Linden Avenue apartment fire when it did.

“If they hadn't been cleared that quick, he would have died,” he said.



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