So began the worst day of my life, at least so far.
When I got there, the Principal, Mr. Decker, told me that he had some troubling news for me: my mother was coming to school to pick me up to take me to the local hospital: my father had been sent there because he was hurt fighting a fire downtown. OMG! I was shaken.
Ten minutes later, my mother, my elder brother Rick and my younger brother Tim came in the van and we all drove to Phillips Memorial Hospital.
When we got there, the woman at the registration desk told us that Dad had been moved from the Emergency Room to a room in the Critical Care Unit. We were given ID badges and one of the helpers led us to the room.
Dad seemed asleep, but was actually in a coma. A doctor and a nurse were by his bed. They asked us to meet with them in a small room down the hall.
The doctor spoke to Mom, while we listened, “Mrs. Williams, your husband was injured in fighting the fire down at Commercial Avenue. He was struck by debris while in the building and has suffered burns to his face, neck and throat and smoke inhalation. We regard his condition as ‘guarded,’ which means he needs skilled medical attention, but he is expected to survive.”
“Is he asleep now?”
“No, he is under sedation, to ease the pain and allow us to carry out some necessary medical procedures.”
“What are those tubes?” Rick asked the doctor.
“The one going into his mouth between his teeth is giving your dad extra oxygen. The one in his arm is an IV drip, an intravenous line with nutritive glucose fluid and a pain medication. We are planning to give him a tracheotomy.”
“What’s that?” Mom asked.
“We will insert a tube that goes into his throat from the front and into his windpipe, his trachea. It will allow him to breath air with added oxygen without the threat of having his throat swell up and close,” Dr. Walker explained.
I was worried. “Won’t that hurt?”
“We will keep him on anesthetics, as much as needed. They will also help ease the pain of his burns.”
Tim suddenly piped up, “Is Dad going to die?”
Dr. Walker put his hand on Tim’s shoulder. “We expect him to be just fine in a few weeks. Meanwhile, we will do everything we can for him. Your dad is a hero.”
“A hero?” I asked.
“Yes, when he was brought to the Emergency Room, his fellow Emergency Medical Technicians told me he had risked his life to save a woman in that building fire on Commercial Avenue. Excuse me, I have got to see another patient. Nurse Robinson is available to help you and to answer more questions, if you have them. Your dad is going to be fine.”
The four of us took another look at Dad, who was still asleep, and then headed home. Each of us was still worried a bit, though not as much as when we first saw him lying in the hospital bed.
We were quiet at the supper table that night.
Finally, Tim asked again, “Mom, is Dad going to die?”
“No, Tim. The doctor seemed confident he will not. He was badly burned, though. He will be in the hospital for weeks. When he gets home, he may not be able to work for some time after that.”
I feared that our family would not have enough money. Mom reassured me that their father’s salary would be paid while he was healing and reminded me that she would still be teaching at the middle school.
“We all have to be brave, just as Dad is. When we see him, let’s not let him feel we are scared. Let’s let him know that we believe all will be well,” Rick told me and Tim. “It will all work out.”
“Right, Rick,” his mother replied.
Mom visited Dad after school each day for the rest of the week-days, but he was usually asleep while she was there.
On Saturday, he was still sedated, but on Sunday, he was awake, and our whole family was in his room during visiting hours that afternoon.
Unfortunately, Dad could not talk, due to the tube in his throat. We told him what each of us had been doing during the week, and we asked him questions to which he replied by blinking his eyes, once for “yes” and twice for “no.” It was slow, but it was better than nothing, and he was clearly delighted to see us.
Rick, Tim, and I asked the nurse about the various pieces of equipment in the room. The hospital bed was narrow, but it allowed having its back or its leg area raise or lowered. There was a heart monitor that gave the heart rate, the blood pressure, and the percentage of oxygen dissolved in his blood. The nurse assured us that the readings were within normal limits. I think I’d like to be a nurse.
When we returned Sunday evening, Dad was temporarily in another room. When we entered, we did not see him. What we saw, instead, was a little scary…a blue plastic chamber somewhat longer and wider than a person, with tubes going in and out of it. A different doctor, Dr. Fruchter, explained that this was a “hyperbaric” chamber, a chamber with air plus oxygen at high pressure. It is used to speed up healing of burns. We did not stay long, as it was hard to talk with Dad and not easy to see whether he was blinking once or twice….
During the week, Mom visited each evening, watching Dad improve. She avoided the times he was in the hyperbaric chamber, and they got better at playing “twenty questions,” with those yes or no responses. Fortunately, by the end of that second week, Dad was fitted with a device that let him speak, and the week-end get-together went much better. He was still somewhat groggy from the pain-killers, but he asked the medical staff to decrease their level, and he was in good spirits, eager to get home. Still under careful attention and observation, he had to wait another two weeks before he was released from the hospital, no longer on the ventilator, but still bandaged on face, neck and hands.
Before he went home, however, both the Mayor and the Chief of Police came to his hospital room along with the rest of our family. The Mayor read a citation to us and gave Dad a Medal of Bravery for his courageous actions during the fire the month before.
The Fire Chief then read to the our family the accident report that was written up for the Fire Department’s records:
“The fire at 6 Commercial Ave. was a structural fire, with multiple calls, in the six-story tenement building, with the fire in the top floor in a rear apartment unit. This is not uncommon for a winter day in the city, except that there were multiple calls.
“Upon arriving at the reported address, the first unit determined that there was a fire on the top floor, not a false alarm. Firefighter Williams, assigned to the first arriving unit’s ‘inside team,’ along with firefighter Thompson and Capt. Dixon raced to the top floor and proceeded to gain access to the burning apartment. Upon entering the apartment, Capt. Dixon and Thompson crawled to one side while Williams crawled to other, simultaneously looking for the base of the fire and for possible victims.
“Capt. Dixon and firefighter Thompson quickly found the base of the fire. Williams discovered two young children. He quickly guided them to a window, where another firefighter was about to enter via the fire escape. Williams helped the children out of the window and transferred the children to the other firefighter, when one of the children indicated that the mother was still inside.
“Williams crawled back into the room where he had found the children, and he came across a barely coherent woman who was still looking for her children. Williams began to assist the woman and the ceiling suddenly collapsed around them. They were trapped without access to the door or to the windows.
“Aware that his fellow firefighters were just a few feet away, Williams shielded the young woman and shared with her the air from his tank, knowing that soon they would be safe. After several minutes, they were saved, but not before the air in his tank ran out.
“The young mother was treated at Phillips Memorial Hospital for mild smoke inhalation and minor burns. Firefighter Williams, however, suffered severe smoke inhalation and significant burns inside his throat and to his neck and face. Williams spent three weeks in the hospital. The first week he was periodically treated in a hyperbaric chamber, to provide supplementary oxygen into his lungs and accelerate burn wound healing; furthermore, he was intubated because of burns and swelling to his throat.
“After being released from the critical care unit, Williams spent two more weeks in the burn unit, receiving skin grafts to his neck and face, after which he was released from the hospital.”
“We would shake your hand, but I know it’s still sore. You know we are all proud of you and we look forward to your return to active duty as soon as it is safe for you to do so,” the Mayor told Dad.
Chief Dixon added, “We all are eager to have you back again. Your heroism saved that woman’s life. You are a real credit to the Department and to the town.”
When Dad came home, with Mom driving the car because his hands were still painful, he told the children that he was proud of them for helping their mother while he was in the hospital and for not being afraid of what would happen to them. “I know you were worried, but you faced it bravely.”
I put my arms gently around Dad’s waist, and said, “We tried not to worry too much. We know you are strong and brave, and we wanted you to be proud of us, too.”
Mom added, “Now that Dad is back, our house could be called ‘the home of the brave.’”
The authors thank Dennis Farrell, retired NYC fire-fighter, for his technical assistance. He served the NYFD with distinction.