We can all agree that one needs a certain level of grit to be a firefighter and put oneself in the path of flaming danger on a daily basis. But there are some out there who take it to the next level. In this article, we’ll share 10 astounding stories of daredevil firefighters who put their lives on the line to save innocents in totally awesome ways.
Not all fire calls involve fire. Firefighters are often dispatched to the scene to handle rescues that nobody else can handle. When two construction workers in Yonkers were trapped precariously outside the 13th floor of a senior center when their scaffolding gave way, the YFD was helpless from the ground, as their longest ladder was almost 10 feet too short to reach them. Instead, fireman Mike Giroux chose to rappel down the face of the building 14 floors, suspended by a single line, to rescue the two men and bring them to the ground safely. One slip could have dislodged more scaffolding, crushing all three in a grisly death. Luckily, he didn’t slip.
The thing about fire rescues is that the people can be just as dangerous as the fires. Human beings tend to lose their capacity for rational thought when faced by a blazing inferno. For New York firefighter Robert Diaz, he needed to follow all of his instincts to save a child from a horrific apartment fire. When Diaz entered the burning apartment, there was no sign of anybody. His keen eyes, however, spotted a medical oxygen line trailing into a closet. Following it, he uncovered an 11-year-old boy underneath a pile of blankets. Diaz grabbed the unconscious boy and discovered that the way out was now totally engulfed in flames. Charging through the blaze protecting the child, Diaz found himself tangled in telephone and cable wires, but still managed to escape with his life.
The thing about being a firefighter is that you’re never really off the clock. In 2009, Chicago firefighter Jason Durbin was enjoying some off-duty time when he saw smoke coming from a nearby highrise. Durbin called 911 and then entered the building, making his way up 28 flights of the stairs to the fire (try running up 28 flights of stairs before you read the rest of this paragraph; we’ll wait). When Durbin got to the fire, with none of his equipment and no backup, he fought through a wall of blinding smoke to find a woman curled up unconscious on the floor. He proceeded to lift her and carry her down 28 floors to safety. All in a day’s work!
Firefighters have an advantage over the rest of us due to their equipment. Their heavy layers and breathing apparatuses allow them to tolerate the flames much longer than ordinary people. But what do you do when the person you’re rescuing needs your equipment more than you do? When Braintree, Mass. fireman James O’Brien responded to a house fire in 2010, he found barely-breathing John Gillis, an unconscious man in a fire-engulfed kitchen. With no concern for his own safety, O’Brien removed his own breathing mask and put it over Gillis’ face. The brave fireman held his breath for agonizing minutes while hoisting Gillis over his shoulders and muscling his dead weight out of the building.
In 2010, Brooklyn firefighters arrived at a blaze in a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to find survivors desperately trying to escape the building by any means necessary. Fireman Peter Demontreaux was manning the aerial ladder at the front when he saw a man dangling from a third-floor window. The man told him another person was still inside, so Demontreaux put on his mask and dove into the house. Blinded by thick, black smoke in all directions, he found the trapped victim and dashed out the door with him, both of their bodies ablaze. His cohorts turned the hoses on them, saving their lives in the nick of time.
One of the hardest things for a firefighter to do is get back on the job after being injured. Post-traumatic stress syndrome is a big deal, and many never get over it. For New York fireman Anthony “Mike” Romano, he had to deal after just a few weeks back. Romano was put on the bench after a service stairway collapsed underneath him, sending him falling to the floor below and seriously tearing his ligaments. When he returned to the job, he showed up at a fire in Queens to respond to a trapped firefighter’s mayday call. Breaking in through a window, he grabbed firefighter Robert Grover and dove with him off the building’s roof, twisting in mid-air so that his body would take the brunt of the fall. Bad-ass.
Sometimes heroism is as simple as being in the right place at the right time. When a high rise on the south side of Chicago went up in flames in the winter of 1996, nobody was surprised; the building had failed a number of inspections. That didn’t help the people trapped inside, who panicked as the apartment building turned into an inescapable inferno. Fireman Bill Heenan clambered up a too-short ladder to try to get a family out of the sixth floor. It would take a few minutes for firefighters inside the building to come to their rescue, though, and things quickly got bad when one of the horrified children jumped from the window ledge, dying on the pavement below. A second child jumped, and Heenan stuck out his arm, catching the 8-year-old, 80-pound girl in mid-air with one arm while desperately clinging to the ladder with the other, a one-of-a-kind life-saving catch that should have earned him a spot on the Cubs.
Joe St. Georges
A firefighter’s job isn’t just to preserve human life. When a German shepherd was spotted desperately struggling to stay afloat in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River in 2010, a number of firefighters came to the scene and tried to throw float rings with ropes attached to coax the dog out before it drowned. Nothing worked until 50-year-old fireman Joe St. Georges threw caution to the wind and jumped into the rushing water, swam out to the animal and grabbed it by the torso. The frightened animal bit St. Georges repeatedly as he muscled it back to shore, but he refused to let go until it was safe on land. How’s that for gratitude?
One of the worst things that can happen to a firefighter is to have their exit plan compromised. The chaotic conditions inside a burning building can lay waste to the best-laid plans, as Chicago firefighter Joseph Martinelli discovered in 2009. After breaking through the door of a burning brick building, Martinelli discovered an unconscious person lying on a bed in a smoke-filled room. Unfortunately, he was also blocked inside the room as the fire had spread to the hallway. An air conditioner blocked the room’s only window, so Martinelli had no choice but to grab the unresponsive civilian, throw him on his back and charge valiantly through the inferno to safety, suffering severe burns to his face in the process.
When you’re inside a burning building, you need to make quick decisions in order to save lives. When Baltimore firefighter Jeffrey Novack responded to a three-story apartment building fire, he was met by a group of residents who told him that there were still people inside. Leading the charge to the top floor, Novack rescued an elderly woman who was barely conscious, shielding her body from the flames with his own before diving back into the inferno to save another civilian. The man panicked and ran from the firefighters, and when Novack gave chase he found himself surrounded by flames. He broke a window and leaped out, hanging from the narrow sill by his fingertips, before plummeting to the concrete below. And thankfully, the civilian survived as well.