On February 4, 2007, a structure fire in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was reported to 9-1-1. What was supposed to be an “ordinary” and “routine” attached garage fire, proved to be anything but that, as well as an incident that these Winnipeg Fire Fighters would never forget.
Only a few minutes after arriving, two firefighters were dead and two others had been severely burned.
It was Super Bowl Sunday and the temperature, with the wind chill in Winnipeg, was minus 40 degrees Celsius. I was fortunate to have been called in for an overtime night shift, to my home hall, Station 1, in downtown Winnipeg.
As I was a Fire-Medic, I expected to be on the “Squad” that night. These trucks respond to our “man-down” calls. Not only that, you get to throw an extra $20 towards dinner and you get the “floor watch” for the night! But when I went into the Captain’s office, he asked if I’d mind riding on his truck, Engine 101 that night. I definitely had no problem with that. My Captain that night was Harold Lessard, a WFD vet for the past 31 years, who was a very well respected man and Captain.
After checking my gear, I headed to the kitchen to help out with dinner, while watching Prince perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. After listening to one of the other fire fighters getting hammered by the officers about Prince’s artistic ability, I headed to the phone booth to call my wife and kids before they headed off to bed. We said our usual goodnights and I mentioned to my wife that I was a little relieved to not be on the Squad. The wind had picked up and the temperature had gone down to minus 48 degrees, with the wind chill.
Two minutes later, the call for a residential alarm came in for Gabrielle Roy, a cul-de-sac in Winnipeg’s French Quarter. This would be our second-in district, so Scott, who was the driver for E101, went to the map. I had spent five years in that district however and said to him that I could guide him in. We were dispatched as a rescue; we carried the gear to respond as one. We got away pretty quickly and had no traffic, because of the weather and Super Bowl festivities.
As we were crossing the bridge from downtown to St. Bonifice, the District Chief (D3) radioed that it was a “working fire.” I reached for the thermal imaging camera to turn it on and then switched seats to face forward and guide to Scott in to the address. I noticed that Captain Lessard was on the edge of his seat, turning his air on.
The early stages of the house fire
As we approached the cul-de-sac, the District Chief’s driver was directing us to where we were to go. We saw the two-story home’s garage fully involved. The Captain and Nozzleman went to D3 to get our assignments and I went to grab tools for our driver and myself. Our crew was tasked to search the second story, while E3 attacked the garage and E2 accompanied us upstairs, checking for fire extension into the house.
We entered the house and turned left to go up the stairs. As we went up, we pulled hose to help E2, as they were making their way to the second floor and found light smoke with minimal heat. We did notice the wall on our left side, which was where the garage was, was very hot. We passed Ed Wiebe from our crew on the stairs, as he was pulling hose for E2. The staircase was open from the main floor to the roof, with a dormer window above, facing the Alpha side. We were tasked to search the right side, which took us to the bedroom whose window faced the Alpha side of the home. Scott proceeded to search the room, while I stayed at the doorway, scanning the room with the thermal imager. While scanning around the room, I noticed carbon accumulating on the screen that I kept having to wipe away.
At the same time, E3 was working on the garage door, to gain access to the fire and E2 is on the second floor with us, but on the left side, in the master bedroom. E2 radioed the IC (D3) that they had broken a window and were requesting PPV. Captain Tom Nichols was by the broken window, backing the hose out in order to pull down the ceiling and check the attic for extension. The IC came back with, “negative E2 to ventilate.” He was watching the smoke outside, suck back into the garage. He then ordered everyone to evacuate. Hearing this, I called over to Scott that we were called out. He had just finished the primary search and had removed his glove to check for heat above, finding little heat. He then started toward me at the doorway and that’s when things changed drastically.
Approximately five to seven seconds after the evacuation call, it was like a window shade of blackness came down onto us, with a lot of heat. We were now in zero visibility. The Office of the Fire Commissioner called this event “black fire” – which is moments before a flashover occurs. We decided to head to the staircase to get out.
At this point, we could feel the temperature rising but our gear was still protecting us. As we made our way to the top of the staircase, we could hear the commotion on the other side the upstairs, where the other crews we assembling to evacuate. I felt the top of the stairs with my gloved hands and as I looked in the direction to go down, a fireball erupted up at us. It looked as though the wall against the garage had breached due to the fire in the garage, as flames filled the staircase up toward us. We felt the tremendous heat, but were partially shielded by the glass across the top railing. The sound of screaming and scattering fire fighters was all we heard after the roar of the flames. We were now left again in the blackness, but this time, the heat had intensified to where we had to get out. Scott and I agreed to go back to the room we had just searched to use the window to get out. We knew the layout and we knew that we had a window. Scott let go of my jacket to turn to lead the way. As I turned to follow, I was blindsided by a force that sent me down the hallway, into the bathroom at the end of the hall. I landed flat on my back on my SCBA tank. Dazed and disoriented, I went to my TIC to get my bearings. The screen was white. Everything was hot! I dropped the camera (which was tethered to my gear) and had to get moving. The pain was starting to get intolerable from the dramatic increase in heat. I went to the right side wall to find a way out. All I kept thinking about was our plan to find a window.
As I followed the wall, I came across someone, thinking it was Scott. I grabbed onto him soon realized that it was my Captain, Harold Lessard’s voice. All I kept saying was, “We gotta find a window, we gotta go!” I was able to get the Captain up and we made our way into the first room on our right search. I scanned past the bed to the far side of the room to find a window in the far corner (C side). At the same time, Scott was also searching for his window to make an exit. He went straight toward where he thought the window was. He reached out into the dormer space and didn’t feel the window. He started to panic, but as he reached, his gloves brushed against the blinds making a recognizable sound. He tore them down and went at the window. I recall hearing Scott yell out, “Found a window, breaking glass.” When I heard that, I now knew that he was still moving and that I’d better hurry and get my window!
It was hot down low, but now I had to stand to break out this bedroom window. I had lost my axe when I was knocked down, so I went at it with both fists flying! It felt like I was punching a brick wall. Finally, the first of three panes broke. I actually stopped to make sure it was a window, not a framed picture or mirror. I felt around the frame and the crank was on the other side, so I knew it was a window. As I was punching, Captain Lessard and I were screaming back and forth, asking if it was really this bad. The pain was excruciating. Periodically, we would hear someone screaming from outside our room, and then it would stop.
Down below, two fire fighters, Scott Kissik and Leigh Gruener, had been on the “B” side of the house, setting up a ladder to knock down some flames coming from the soffit. The lieutenant, Ken Purpur, from Ladder 2, shouted to them to bring the ladder over to the window that I was breaking. They were unable to lower the ladder due to it freezing up and breaking one of the dawgs. They could hear us screaming but were unable to understand what we were saying.
I then heard the RIT on the radio, giving the IC their report. They couldn’t make their way up the stairs due to the heat and fire. A fire fighter from Engine 9 (third-in vehicle) came behind them with a 2-½” line to make a pathway for them. I could hear the commotion and screams outside of our room and that they were coming for us. As they made their way up the stairs, they came across a collapsed fire fighter, upside down on the staircase, which was Ed Wiebe. They were his screams that we had heard, but he was in and out of consciousness.
The Situation Quickly Became Untenable for Firefighters Inside
Scott broke through his window and jumped through, expecting to fall two stories to the ground. Luckily, he landed on the roof of the front porch, on the “A” side of the building. He felt himself sliding and caught himself from falling on the rain gutter. He couldn’t see because of the carbon baked onto his mask, blackening it out. Other fire fighters saw Scott on the roof and put a portable ladder up to help him down. Scott walked over to the IC and asked where everyone else was. No one else came out the window after him, so he thought the rest of us used the stairs. The IC then deployed the RIT who had just arrived – moments earlier, they were sitting with us in the kitchen at 1 Station.
Finally, my right fist went through the window. By the time it came back in and my left went through, I couldn’t feel them anymore. I don’t remember clearing the window. I then screamed to the Captain that I had the window clear. He said that it was too high to jump.
I then heard on the radio that the RIT was coming in for us, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We were screaming in pain for help, yet never went on the radio. At that time, it didn’t seem possible to stop and go on the radio to let them know what was happening to us. Everything had narrowed down to simply getting out.
Again, I screamed to my Captain that we had to jump and grabbed him from his kneeling position to get him up. By doing this, I compacted our gear, allowing our superheated gear now to touch our skin. Both of us screamed out in pain. I felt I should be able to pick up my Captain and thinking that I was doing it wrong, I bent down and tried lifting him onto my shoulder, using the power from my legs. Again, we screamed out, falling down together. The pain was now past any point I had ever experienced. Panic had set in. My Captain then said we had to go. I was able to get him to a standing position on the sill. I then tried to fit through the 18-inch opening, which was approximately 50 inches from the floor.
The summer prior, we had training sessions at our academy called “back to basics”, where we were practicing low profile manoeuvres. It came back to me, as I pushed my tank up to the top corner and swam through the window, falling 16 feet to the deck below, which was freshly cleared of snow, almost landing on one of the fire fighters that was shouting up to us. They didn’t see me come out because of the smoke billowing out.
It felt like an instant, being inside and then landing below on my left side and left arm stretched out, just as I went out the window.
There was no more pain. I remember taking a breath and closing my eyes. I thought the fire fighters had picked me up, but I later found out that when they turned to see what the thud was, I had gotten up and was lying in the snow in the back yard (C side). I had missed them and the ladder. They were from my shift, on overtime as well. I was so covered with black soot; they didn’t know it was me until they peeled my mask off. Leigh walked me around to the front of the house Scott Kissik jumped up onto the sunroom roof to help Harold. He had his upper body out the window.
As I made my way to the neighbor’s driveway, Scott Attichison saw me and came over, hugged me, saying, “I thought you were out.”
The RIT then came out with Ed Wiebe and other fire fighters helped to get him to another ambulance
Scott Kissik tried to pull Harold out but was unable to get him through. Another fire fighter, Ray Thompson, made his way up the ladder, supported by Leigh Gruener. The ladder was at an awkward angle and Leigh was under th ladder, supporting it with her back under the rungs. Ray tried pulling Harold through the window but was unable to fit him through. Harold then collapsed to the floor. Ray jumped into the room and with help from Garth Roswell, was able to get him out onto the ladder. Bob Wright, the Platoon Chief, was at the bottom of the ladder when they brought Harold down. He said to him “We got you Harold.” Harold then went limp and stopped breathing. The crews quickly got him to the front of the house and his fellow fire fighters worked to save him.
Now, the only remaining fire fighter that was missing was Captain Tom Nichols. Rescue 8 was tasked to search for the missing Captain from Engine 2. Now that the fire was through the roof and numerous windows vented, R8 was able to make their way up the stairs and with their TIC, saw a boot. The Captain was found in the same room that Captain Lessard and I were in, just a few feet away from where we were only moments earlier. He was unresponsive and when he was brought out, the awaiting crews started CPR.
Tragically, both Captains succumbed to their injuries.
Harold Lessard Age 55; Captain, Platoon 3, Station 1 31 Years Service
Thomas Nichols Age 57; Captain, Platoon 3, Station 2 32 Years Service
I received burns to 70% of my body, with 20% of them being third degree, requiring skin grafting. After 16 days in the burn center, I was released to go home. After rigorous physical and mental rehabilitation, 11 months later, I returned to 1 Station, full duties as a fire fighter on Engine 101.
Since this horrific event, my family and friends have supported me in the search to find a path to wellness, both on and off the job. Having two little boys at the time of incident (Noah-4 and Nathan-2) encouraged me to try and regain the life that my family and I had before the incident. Sadly, that life would never return.
We realized that we needed more than just “talks” about how we were doing – we needed help. With the support of our management and Local 867, everyone that was involved in the February 4th fire, had access to professional help. Having never gone to a psychologist, it was hard to accept that I (we) couldn’t do it on my (our) own. This help was not just for us that were on scene, but also for those spouses that were at home, waiting for us to return.
On the road to surviving survival, we experienced many ups and down along the way. Personally, I have been blessed to have had more “ups” than “downs”!
Almost six years after this incident, my wife Joanna and my three children (a one year old little girl named Madison as well now) have been persistent in the relentless attention that ongoing survival truly requires.
Enduring the trauma was one triumph, yet the struggle to recapture our lives and reaffirm a sense of self and family was and is a larger indefinite trial.
Firefighters Gather to Honor Their Fallen Brother
Lionel, since the incident, has concentrated his studies and training on Fire Fighter Survival in its many forms.
He has been appointed as a Master Instructor for the IAFF Fire Ground Survival Program; is a trainer for the Petzl EXO Escape System; is a Peer Support and Trainer for Burn Survivor Fire Fighters; and is also the IAFF 13th District Burn Foundation Coordinator.
Only through constant training and support has Lionel been able to remain on the frontline as a firefighter. Without the support of his family and fellow firefighters, he would not be where he is today.