Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Saving Betsy

 I’m sure that I’m not the only firefighter who may have saved more pets than people over the years. Most times evacuating pets is merely a routine part of residential firefighting, but can sometimes become a major effort.

1980 – something.  We had responded to a fire in the basement of a four-story apartment building on the city’s west side. The fire was contained in a maze of individual storage pens for renters, and though restricted to the basement, was a stubborn fire that continued to produce a lot of smoke as the first-in crew made their way through the maze to douse what flames they could find.

Smoke was still building in the upper floors and crews were dispatched to each floor. As part of Engine 61’s crew, I was assigned with John Bender to check out the fourth floor apartments to make sure everyone had evacuated.

We banged on each door loudly, hollered out “Fire Department! Is everybody out?” several times.  One or two residents responded, and one of us would lead them to the stairwell. At the last apartment we checked, the elderly lady opened the door in her robe and asked if we could help her with Betsy.  “Sure thing,” we answered. “That's what we’re here for.”

The lady pointed to the balcony. There on the other side of a sliding glass door was Betsy, a large German Shepard. Her mouth was wide open, tongue hanging out as she panted, with her tail tightly curling under her rear end.

Bender led the lady toward the door, assuring her along the way that “…the other fireman will bring Betsy along, don’t worry.” Bender had just reminded me who the senior man on the crew was, I figured.

Smoke was building as Bender and Betsy’s owner moved down the hallway toward the stairwell, still clear of smoke and the most direct route down to the outside. Muttering a few choice words meant only for Bender’s ears, I opened the balcony door, hoping that my turnout gear might be sufficient protection if Betsy decided to take a chunk out of me. 

As the door opened, Betsy turned, moved a few inches toward me, sat back on her haunches and lifted her front legs in an obvious begging gesture. Almost immediately she stood up on her hind legs and pushed up against me licking my face as she alternately pushed away the dangling air pack mask hanging around my neck.

OK, I thought, Betsy and me are officially buddies.

“OK Betsy, lets go outside with mommy,” I said reaching down to the dog’s collar to begin leading her through the door.  Once a few feet into the room, and getting a whiff of the smoke that was still making the air a bit hazy in the room, Betsy froze and tried to back away, my hand still holding her collar.  Further attempts ended with the same result, so I figured that I’d try to carry her out.

Standing to Betsy’s side and reassuring her all the way, I bent down and reached around just under her neck in the front, and behind her rear legs and picked her up off the floor, interlocking my gloved fingers. She squirmed a little, and kept twisting her head back to lick at my face and continued to do so as we left the apartment. 

Betsy felt fairly light at first, but by the time I got to the stairway, with Bender and Betsy’s owner more than a flight down below, the dog started to feel heavier. I continued down the stairs.

Just below, another team of firefighters entered the stairwell, bringing with them a gust of thicker smoke that followed them out.  When the smoke got to me, Betsy began squirming more, then began twisting a bit harder, making my grip harder to hold as well. I held on tighter, talking to Betsy along with each step, trying to keep her calm.

By the time we made it to the ground floor, my arms felt like they were burning inside, and my interlocked fingers had gone numb as I kept hold of the dog. Sweat was pouring from my face and I was nearly out of breath myself after fighting with what seemed like a scared little puppy dressed in a big grownup German Shepard suit. My knees started to feel like they would buckle at any moment.

Just before I reached the door leading to the outside, Bender had returned to give me a hand. “Need some help?” he asked.

“Yeah, take this dog before I drop her,” I said, as I dropped to my knees, hoping to get a chance to get my helmet off and feel some cool air.

Bender, now between me and the doorway to the outside, grabbed the dog in similar fashion, turned 90 degrees and stepped out the door to thunderous applause from dozens of residents, spectators and a couple of camera flashes.

That week in the newspaper, the photo caption read, “Firefighter John Bender rescues family pet from deadly smoke and reunites her with family.”

What a guy.

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