Firefighters Risked Their Lives
By: Alex Scofield
Next Wednesday, five Bourne firefighters who participated in the attempted rescue of an elderly couple from their Puritan Road home on Christmas Eve will be awarded with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Fire Services 20th annual “Firefighters of the Year” Award.
The winners include Lieutenants Martin Greene and David S. Pelonzi, Firefighter Thomas J. Simpson, Call Firefighter Shawn M. Silva, and former Bourne firefighter Matthew G. Weston.
Though the men who entered the home were unable to save the lives of its two residents, 77-year-old Leo A. Gagnon and his 74-year-old wife, Marion Gagnon, Lt. Greene, who commanded the scene, said the brave and selfless actions of his crew were fully worth the honor.
Officer Simpson said he still remembers standing in front of the door to 120 Puritan Road on Christmas Eve last year and seeing brown smoke gather around the home’s blackened windows.
Firefighters were dispatched to the burning home at 9:34 PM. It was 9:38 PM when they got to the house.
Three minutes earlier, Officer Simpson had just returned to the Bourne Fire Station after going to an elderly woman’s home to replace the batteries in her carbon monoxide detector. Now, he started getting ready to risk his life.
Under normal circumstances, firefighters would wait to enter a home in this condition, said Lieutenant Martin Greene.
“If we didn’t have good reports that people were in the home, we probably would have taken a few precautionary efforts before I sent them in,” he said.
The brown smoke and blackened windows indicated that the fire was starving for oxygen, which meant that though it had stopped burning for now, it could combust violently once a door or window were opened.
“We went in because there was a chance of making a grab,” Lt. Greene said.
Officer Simpson said the tension of that moment, when he stood in front of the door to the Gagnons’, home is still fresh in his mind.
“I remember standing by the door and hearing [Lt. Greene] saying there were people inside,” he said. “The [fear] factor definitely was in effect.”
Officer Simpson smashed through the home’s front door using a halogen tool and as the door opened he and his fellow first responders, including Firefighter Silva, were relieved to be greeted only by billowing smoke and not a rush of fire.
Lt. Greene watched as his crew disappeared into the smoke-filled house.
“All I remember was boots walking into the fire,” Lt. Greene said.
Officer Simpson said he still remembers the smell of burning that filled his nose through his oxygen mask during the rescue effort.
“You never forget that smell,” he said.
The ceiling of the Gagnons’ home burned overhead as Officer Simpson and his crew conducted their search. “Flames were rolling over our heads,” he recalled.
It was a second wave of firefighters who found Mrs. Gagnon, lying on the floor between the kitchen and the dining room. It was she who had made the call to Bourne Dispatcher Cheryl Corveatt to report the fire.
It took less than 10 minutes to find Ms. Gagnon after arriving at the scene of the fire, Lt. Greene said.
It was the second wave of responders who also found Mr. Gagnon, about 10 minutes after that, lying unconscious on the basement floor, where firefighters believe the fire was sparked by a faulty electrical fan.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Gagnon were given “aggressive advanced life support” at the scene of the fire before being transported to Tobey Hospital.
Lt. Pelonzi accompanied them on the ride to Tobey, where they were later pronounced dead.
Firefighters continued to fight the blaze into the early hours of Christmas morning, after receiving word that the couple had died.
Fire crews from Bourne and Onset were able to contain the fire to the basement and the stairwell leading to the first floor.
Though the fire burned through the basement and reached the first floor, there was little evidence of a fire on the home’s exterior the following day.
No Bourne firefighters suffered any physical injuries during the rescue effort, but one year later, they are each in various stages of recovery from the emotional damage.
“It’s tough,” Officer Simpson said. “I guess you think about things you could have done a little better, a little quicker. It’s a tragedy”
Officer Simpson is a career firefighter; he’s been with the Bourne department since 2003 and was running into burning buildings with other departments or as a member of the armed services for years before that.
As a result, he can be hard on himself. The award does not sit well with him in some ways.
His eyes welled up with tears and he had to excuse himself at moments during the interview when he thought back on the evening, though the other men who were with him during last Christmas Eve assure him he did everything he could.
Lt. Greene said that when your job calls on you to handle life or death situations, it is important rely on one’s training, to do what you have been taught to do and trust that the process will yield a positive result.
His men did just that last Christmas Eve, and, for that, they have every reason to be proud, no matter how difficult it is to let go of the regret.
“They’re not going to give this award to somebody who runs into the house with a T-shirt on and an axe in their hand,” he said. “This is not Hollywood. We did everything we could. That we couldn’t make the rescue, that’s fate. We can’t change that.”
Call Firefighter Silva said reflecting on the effort he and his fellow firefighters gave last year helps ease some of the pain that comes whenever a rescue is not successful.
“We’re trained to go to fires,” he said. “There’s always a chance of someone being inside the fire. The result wasn’t what we wanted. But we tried.”
Officer Simpson said, despite his reservations about the award, he does appreciate it. He does not want to diminish the efforts of his fellow firefighters on that night, despite all the hard questions he continues to ask himself.
It was kind of a hodge-podge crew working on Christmas Eve, he remembered, many of the firefighters with families had taken holidays and were replaced by new members of the department or guys without families who did not mind picking up the extra shift.
“I think a guy with less than two months’ experience was working the pump,” he said. “And he did a great job.”
Officer Simpson said he’ll remember the Gagnon fire for the rest of his life, except perhaps for those minutes and hours he spends inside other burning buildings.
“When something like this happens again, yeah, I’ll think about this fire,” he said. “But at some point, the training will just have to take over.”
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