Fighting More Than Fires

The first thing you notice is the smell. Distinctive, acrid smoke hits your nostrils, knocking your senses back a bit. Then the sounds – the violent cracking noises, the whoosh of wind as flames consume the structure.

The shouting of orders between firefighters catches your ear, as do the cries of anguish from the residents who can only stand by and watch their home go up in the scorching hell. Bells begin to ring, indicating an air tank is running low on a firefighter’s back. And when it’s over, the quiet is just as deafening as you realize someone has perished in the blaze.

It could have been any of us. Fire does not discriminate, however it does take advantage of those less fortunate who will do anything to keep their families warm in winter. I’ve seen it too many times.

Over the past 34 years in this news business, I have seen and reported on many fire stories. Some had quick and happy endings. Too many have caused me sleepness nights thinking about both the victims who could not be saved and firefighters who lament the loss of life. It’s not a job you can leave in a locker at the end of the day.

I’ve witnessed unimaginable efforts to pull five children from a burning structure and free a driver trapped in a smashed truck dangling over an interstate. I’ve seen police officers jump in to help firefighters as they wait for paramedics to arrive and aid a bleeding shooting victim.

It was at a Warwood house fire years ago that claimed the lives of a mother and her children that I watched as a fire chief struggled to fight back tears and a fireman dropped to his knees, overcome by the futility of their efforts to save the family. I listened as a burly firefighter comforted the grandfather who had tried in vain to save his family.

Firefighters call each other “brother” for a good reason. They live and work as closely together as most families. When a new firefighter was injured at a fire scene, I watched a towering giant of a firefighter sweep him up and carry him to safety because that’s what brothers do for one another.

Maybe they will squabble over who ate the last piece of pie – like brothers often do – but they will drop everything when the bell sounds and they will focus on the job at hand.

We are lucky in the Ohio Valley to have safety forces who do answer our cries for help no matter the day or hour. They will miss out on holiday celebrations, birthday parties and anniversaries for you and me.

This week Wheeling firefighters had their hands full with a terrible fire that resulted in a woman’s death on Wheeling Island. It was snowing hard, and it was difficult to walk – let alone climb ladders. Smoke and flames overtook the building.

I cringed at hearing the “armchair quarterbacks” in the crowd questioning the actions of the firefighters at that fire scene, but I was afraid I would wind up in handcuffs if I confronted them. All I can say is, walk in their boots for 24 hours.

Heather Ziegler can be reached via e-mail at