Monday, October 3, 2011

The Worst Shift Of My Career Part 2 - From Bad to Worse

Third installment of a series.  The first installment can be found HERE. The second is located HERE.

As predicted, the faint, warm breeze turned into a full blown Santa Ana, building throughout the day and howling by mid-afternoon. Also as predicted, the call volume for the department was howling as well. As we were the second out engine at station #1, we were not as affected by the lines down, arcing power lines or ringing alarms as other units, but we were still busy.

The tones hit about three P.M, this time for a reported vehicle fire on the east side. Nothing remarkable at his point, car fires are not unusual in this mostly poor neighborhood, one with many cars in marginal mechanical condition.

A few blocks out and a few minutes into the response, dispatch advised us that they were getting multiple reports of the fire and also a report of a burn victim. They asked if we wanted an ambulance and an additional engine, I confirmed the ambulance and told dispatch that I would advise on the need for a second engine. We could see no smoke even though we were only a block or two away.

We rounded the corner and had no difficulty finding the incident. A sedan with the passenger compartment well involved was parked on the curb, the smoke and flames laying nearly horizontal, being pushed by the strong wind. One small group of people were kneeling and standing around a small form laying on the ground, another was standing around someone holding a small child. Yet another child was in the arms someone else, a crowd not present around him.

It took a second for the true nature of the incident to set in, the scope of it much larger than the typical vehicle fire. From the looks and gestures of the various groups of people, it was apparent that we had at least two burn victims, probably seriously injured. The second engine was requested as was a second ambulance.

I had my firefighter go to where the victim was laying on the ground and gave my engineer the responsibility of setting the pump and extinguishing the fire. I went to check the second victim and to get a more complete grasp of the incident.

The second victim, a child of around three years old was still in the arms of an adult as I walked up. I was shocked at the severity of her injures. Her hair was burned to the point of being discolored and partially removed. She was burned over a large portion of her body, I don't remember the percentage. The burns appeared to be serious second degree, which meant that they were likely third degree. She was crying, though barely.

I wanted to see the condition of the first victim, so I walked over to where my firefighter was assessing her. Her condition appeared to be in worse shape than the second patient, she was unconscious and there was more of her skin hanging from her head and upper torso. She appeared to be younger, if I remember correctly, probably around two.

It was around this time that the person carrying the third child approached me and I goat a good look at him. He was about five, was conscious and crying loudly. His hair was burned, as was his skin, though his injuries appeared to be less severe than that of the other two.

I looked around to see if there were any others and I noticed a man running from kid to kid, obviously in a state of extreme upset. He said that he was the kid's father, I don't remember what else was said. A large crowd had gathered by now, I could sense some anger in it. I asked for the cops, I needed to keep the scene secure.

The ambulance arrived quickly, the first two patients were quickly loaded and transported. They by-passed the local ER and were sent to the nearest burn center, located in the next county. It's funny, our protocols state that burn patients should be sent to the nearest ER for stabilization, then transferred to the burn center. That rarely happens, once base station contact is made, they almost always have them sent directly to the burn center.

The second ambulance and second engine arrived a few minutes later, the third patient actually made it to the local ER before being transferred to the burn center later. I have to believe that it had more to do with the burn center being maxed with our first two patients, than it did with following protocol.

My engineer did a very good job knocking down the fire, the second engine only had to help with overhaul and then was quickly released. All that remained, was to find out what happened.

Even though I was an investigator at the time, I felt that someone with more experience should take the lead, as the cause of this fire would be heavily scrutinized. Three critical injuries from a vehicle fire are definitely not normal, especially when the victims were children.

The lead investigator and one of the other shift investigators came out and we began looking into the tragedy. The other shift investigator began interviewing the father and witnesses, the head investigator began examination and photographing the car. I assisted the head investigator.

It was pretty obvious that the fire began inside the passenger compartment. The damage to the engine compartment was less severe, burn patterns indicating that the fire had moved into the engine compartment from the passenger compartment, not the other way around. There was no fire damage under the car, very little in the trunk.

We were able to narrow the area of origin to the passenger's side floor area of the front seat, where we found the remains of clothing and papers. We also found the remains of a lighter. Witnesses and the father said that the kids had been left alone in the car, while the father went inside a nearby house to take care of some business.  At some point, the fire was noticed and the father made aware of it. I am not sure if some of the witnesses were aware that three small kids were inside the car as they watched it burn. The father and at least one other person were able to open the car and get the kids out before it became fully involved.

The two little girls were still strapped in their car-seats, secured in the back seat when they were removed from the car. The little boy was pulled from the floor of the back seat. The father said that the little boy was seated in the front passenger seat when he went into the house and also said that he had left the car unlocked when he left it, but that it was locked when he tried to get the kids out.

After putting the pieces together, we were able to determine that the little boy had been playing with the lighter in the front seat while left unattended.  After the fire started, the little boy had hit the door lock while trying to escape the fire, trapping the kids and much of the smoke inside the car. At some point, the little boy found the front seat untenable and crawled into the back seat, then onto the floor. That action saved his life.

The little girls were not so lucky, the heat from the fire went up to the roof of the car, where it mushroomed laterally across the ceiling, then down upon their heads and upper torsos. They were strapped in their car-seats, unable to escape the heat and smoke until removed from the car by others. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that one of the windows failed, allowing some smoke to escape and causing the fire to be noticed. When the other side door was opened, the strong winds acted to fan the flames further, turning the car into a blowtorch.

In any event, the two little girls died a few days later, while still in the burn unit. It was a horrific, painful experience for those kids, one that nobody should have to endure, especially kids. I view those kids as victims, not unlike Baby Jake.

The failures of adults causing their deaths. I thought we are supposed to care for our kids

For me, another crappy component of what turned out to be a pretty crappy day. First Jake, now this.

To be continued.

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