GREENSBORO, N.C. — Pulling up to Import Knight Auto Repair on Jan. 30, Greensboro firefighter Matthew Clapp saw what he said he thought was a typical fire — although it was a large one.
He and two other members of the Ladder 7 crew — Capt. William Shane Boswell and Bryan Bachemin — made their way in through a large rolling garage door and carried a hose line to attack the fire from the inside.
Through smoke that billowed out of the building, Clapp could see a car in front of him that was on fire, but he said he could make out little else.
“You can’t see in front of you,” Clapp, 38, said. “It was just hot, and you find the glow in the dark.
“I felt like we were doing an excellent job. Until the roof collapsed on us, I thought we were going to put the fire out.”
When the roof collapsed, a part of a ceiling crossbeam struck Clapp.
“It knocked us forward, and I landed on my leg,” he said. “There was no warning. I was just down.”
The fire at 811 Elm St. had ignited when a mechanic dropped a portable light, igniting fuel on the floor. Employees tried to extinguish the blaze, but the fire quickly spread because of vapors. A car suspended on a lift caught fire, pushing the flames toward the roof.
And when the blaze tore through the building, the roof caved in more quickly than expected, surprising the firefighters inside.
Clapp opened his eyes to a shocking sight.
“We were buried, facedown. I saw [Bryan] Bachemin, and I tried to crawl,” he said.
Clapp got free of the beam and other rubble and tried to get up.
“I tried two different times to stand, and I just fell,” Clapp said, His leg “was like a noodle.”
The firefighters were 30 to 40 feet inside the building. One of the other firefighters issued a mayday call — the distress signal that means it’s a life-threatening emergency. Meanwhile, Clapp searched on the ground for his hose line. Grabbing onto it would give the firefighters a way to feel their way out of the smoke-filled building.
Clapp also spotted a bright white square of light coming from the door. The men crawled toward the light.
“It felt like we were in there a long time, but it was only about two minutes,” Clapp said. “Two minutes in a blazing inferno is a long time.”
When the men made their way to the edge of the building, they saw firefighters and emergency crews everywhere, Clapp said. A few people spotted Clapp, saw that he was hurt and pulled him from the building.
Only then, Clapp said, did he realize he was in pain.
“It didn’t hurt until I got outside and saw daylight. I had too much adrenaline to feel it,” he said.
Crews cut off his gear, including his left boot. His left fibula was broken halfway up his leg, and so was his left ankle.
At Moses Cone Hospital, a doctor told him that his skin was holding his leg together.
Clapp said he had been whisked out of the building so quickly that he didn’t see whether the other members of his crew were out safely.
“Other firefighters kept assuring me Capt. Boswell was fine, but I didn’t understand: If he was fine, why were firefighters still working in the building?” Clapp said.
Clapp didn’t know at the time a firefighter from another crew remained trapped inside. Capt. Sterling Suddarth was another 20 to 30 feet behind where Clapp and his crew had been hit by the roof.
Nearly four months have passed, The state’s investigation into the fire has been completed.
But Clapp still has a limp, and he’s the only one of the four injured men who has not yet returned to duty.
The night of the fire, Suddarth was taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for burns and other injuries, where he remained for 18 days. The most seriously injured, he returned to light duty Monday, but it’s not clear when he would return to full-time firefighting duties.
Boswell sustained neck and back injuries. He was treated at Moses Cone and released the same evening. He returned to work Feb. 14.
Bachemin was taken to Moses Cone for minor injuries and returned to duty the next day.
Clapp also was taken to Moses Cone on the day of the fire, but his ankle was too swollen for the doctor to do much with it. So he was released.
It was not until Feb. 5 that Clapp had his first surgery. Three screws, about 2.5 inches long, were implanted into his broken ankle to hold it together. One is horizontal, the other two are vertical. The horizontal screw was removed April 28, the other two will remain in his leg permanently.
He returns to a doctor this week to check on his progress. Clapp said he still has trouble with prolonged walking and standing and has not done any rehab on his ankle because of the horizontal screw.
He said he’s hopeful he will be cleared for light duty by June and to firetruck duty by July.
“There’s only so much cleaning around the house you can do,” he said.
During his recovery, Clapp was promoted from senior firefighter to engineer — a process that was set in motion before the fire. He said he earned the promotion more than a year ago, but gaining the position is based on availability.
Despite his injuries, Clapp said he never has had any doubts about returning to his job.
“I love it. That’s not going to change,” Clapp said.
He admits that what happened inside that auto body shop did have an effect on his family.
“My wife is just real thankful I’m alive and it wasn’t worse,” Clapp said. “I have two teenage boys, and at first they slept in my room. This whole situation has made us aware of how fragile life is, and each day is an opportunity.”
Clapp said his sons, ages 12 and 15, are now sleeping in their own rooms again and that having supportive family has helped him in his recovery.
He attributes his survival to two things: Greensboro Fire Department’s training and divine intervention.
“You train and you train, and you wonder if you’ll ever use it,” Clapp said. “When I was in there, I didn’t think about anything. It was reflexes, and I believe it saved our lives. Everyone’s swift movement is what saved Capt. Suddarth’s life.
“People still think it’s a miracle that we made it out. Before I started looking for that hose line, I started praying. The Lord protected us. There’s no way I’d be here without Him.”