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Under Fire 

Mike Estrada was supposed to be ordered away from a burning building by his superior. It was just one of many mistakes that put him in harm's way.

Wednesday, Nov 4 2009

The smell of smoke was enough to spike firefighter Mike Estrada's bloodstream with adrenaline. He knew it was going to be a big fire, because there was no wind that morning and yet he could still smell the smoke from blocks away. By the time the fire engine he was riding in began winding its way through the maze of warehouses off Bayshore Boulevard in the Bayview, Estrada's senses were splinter-sharp. He could feel the heat. He could taste the soot. And when his rig turned a corner onto Revere Avenue, all he could see was fire: Backdropped by a dark mat of early morning sky, a blazing behemoth billowed from the roof of a warehouse.

But 13 years of firefighting experience had trained the human instinct of flight out of Estrada. He and his crew arrived ready to go to work. They were instructed to go defensive, which meant they began preparing to surround and drown the building from the outside rather than make an aggressive attack from the inside, as Estrada had done just hours earlier at a nearby residential fire.

Less than five minutes after their arrival, the fire was raised from a two- to a three-alarm. More rigs were on the way, but in the meantime, Estrada was instructed to man the front of a hose line with another firefighter at street level. They would shoot water into the building, while others took on the beast from above with a ladder hose. As two firefighters worked beside him to cut a hole in the warehouse's roll-up door with a rotary saw, Estrada focused on his assignment: Man the hose; put out the fire.

The last thing he remembers is thinking that he should get into position to shoot water through the hole in the door — he could feel the heat radiating behind it. Later, he would learn that the heat from inside was so intense that it had melted off the door's supports, causing it to sag outward and lean to one side. Some firefighters had been directed to stand back. But not Estrada. He had crept so close to the building that he could almost touch it.

So when a large chunk of flaming wall and concrete the size of a small car suddenly came crashing down, the firefighters standing nearby — those directly next to Estrada, and the few standing behind him — just barely missed getting hit. But Estrada wasn't so lucky. In less than a second, he went from fighting fire to being on fire — unconscious, buried under a pile of blazing debris, and fighting for his life.

Estrada somehow survived the collapse. But more than five months later, he's still unsure how he wound up under a fiery wall that nearly killed him. Part of the reason is that San Francisco Fire Department heads have yet to share the findings of their internal investigation. The result is that few firefighters know what happened at the Revere Avenue fire, how it happened, and exactly how they should train to prevent it from happening in the future.

The department's deputy chief of operations, Patrick Gardner, said he decided against conducting a full-blown safety report after the fire and sharing the results with the department because, he said, "it wasn't a mystery what happened. ... A safety zone was established, and it wasn't enforced."

When a fire is big enough to require a defensive approach, firefighters are trained to keep a buffer, or "safety zone," between themselves and the building (or "collapse zone") at least one and a half times the height of the structure. The logic behind this rule is that no building without people in it is worth a firefighter's life.

Gardner's explanation of events at the Revere Avenue fire points to the first and most obvious preventable mistake: Firefighters shouldn't have been working in the collapse zone. But incident reports and interviews with sources on the scene indicate that the story is more complicated and that not just one, but a series of mistakes occurred that, if prevented, could save the next San Francisco firefighter from ending up buried under burning debris.

In July, the city's firefighters' union called in federal investigators to conduct a thorough safety report that they say should have been made by the department months ago. Union officials hope this report will unveil mistakes made at the Revere Avenue fire, and lead to a series of recommendations for training based on those mistakes.

Meanwhile, Estrada is suffering the consequences of those errors. In addition to severe damage to his right leg, his right knee was shattered, and he broke bones in his right shoulder, left foot, left hand, collarbone, and neck. He also has second- and third-degree burns to his left hand and the left side of his face. The damage could have been worse if fellow firefighters hadn't been right there to pull him out of the rubble as quickly as they did.

During the six weeks he spent at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, where he underwent 10 surgeries, Estrada had time to pore over incident reports that included narratives of the fire from the perspective of every chief who was there. With the help of those reports and conversations with fellow firefighters, Estrada has been able to piece together the events of that morning that, combined with luck and the inherent dangers of the job, changed his life forever.

Estrada remembers little from his journey to the hospital after the collapse, except for the part where he woke up in the ambulance begging for morphine. He had what's called a multisystem trauma, so medics couldn't risk slowing his breathing to a standstill by administering narcotics. Estrada had been trained as a paramedic, so he understood this perfectly well. But he begged for it anyway. Then he passed out.

During the following week, while Estrada waited to find out whether doctors would have to amputate his leg, many of his fellow firefighters visited him in the hospital. One visit, he says, was particularly memorable. Battalion Chief Charles Crane had been supervising Estrada and his crew at the time of the collapse. At Estrada's hospital bedside, Crane took full responsibility for what had happened. Estrada says this confession was confusing at the time — it wasn't until later, when he was looking over the incident reports, that he began to understand.

About The Author

Anna McCarthy


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