With the recent passing of a fire department buddy, my mind has been rummaging around in the 25 years I was on the Newport Beach Fire Department (1958 — 1983).
My engine company responded to the report of a car fire in a garage on the main beach at Corona del Mar. I could see heavy smoke pouring from an open garage door, but no flames.
As I approached the home, a bystander shouted that there had been a big explosion before the smoke began. The smoke was so heavy that I could barely see anything, but I could easily smell the gun powder. A car door was standing open and I saw a body lying on the floor of the garage. I quickly told the police officer to keep the gawkers on the other side of the road—we evidently had a crime scene now. I presumed it to be some sort of a bomb that blew up when the victim opened his car door.
I reported the situation to my dispatcher and requested an ambulance to scene, Code 3 (emergency, respond with lights and sirens on). This was before the days of paramedics; all we could do was give immediate assistance and transport the fellow to the hospital as quickly as possible. The hospital was about 3 miles away.
A young man (perhaps 19 or 20) kept trying to make entrance into the garage to get a closer look. The policeman shooed him away a couple of times. Then I told the guy to help us get rid of the smoke — the ocean breeze kept the smoke from escaping the garage. “Grab that that piece of plywood and begin fanning the smoke out of here,” I told him in an authoritative tone of voice. Man, he created a heck of a wind in no time.
It had been only a minute or so since we arrived. With the smoke removed, I took a closer look at the victim. My fireman was attempting to stem the heavy flow of blood from where his right hand had been. His left hand consisted of his thumb and his little finger –the rest of the fingers were gone. A large pool of blood had gathered on the floor next to the car. The fireman and I quickly applied tourniquets to the wrists. The victim, in his 50s, was still conscious.
The officer also called for support. In talking with the victim’s wife, I learned that her husband had discovered a military smoke flare on the beach exactly a year before — July Fourth. He had forgotten about it, but the day reminded him of the hazardous situation and he decided to disarm the darn thing in his shop.
The ambulance arrived about then. The victim was still conscious. We loaded him into the vehicle and off they went, Code 3.
Now I faced a real problem: was there more than one flare? I made my way into the shop. If there was another flare, did the blast make it unstable? Well, the problem was our responsibility.
I made a very careful inspection and was relieved to find there were no more flares.
About a year later I was invited to address a group of church members on the importance of fire prevention in the home. As I made my way to the podium, I noticed a gentleman sitting in the front row of the assembly. He had a prosthesis on his right arm, and his left hand was missing three fingers. His face looked like he had a very bad case of acne when he was young.
“I think we have met before, sir,” I said, smiling.
“Oh my gosh, are you the fire captain that saved my life last year? I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
After my short lecture, we chatted for about 20 minutes about how his life had changed. His faith was even stronger as a result of his experience.
I remarked how incredible it was that he never lost consciousness at the scene.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t,” he replied. “The ambulance got lost and I had to lean on an elbow and direct them to the hospital.”
E-mail John Brannon at firstname.lastname@example.org