GREENSBORO, N.C. — Acts of heroism happen every day. That’s especially true when it comes to the brave men and women who work at the Greensboro Fire Department. Their profession requires a lot of training and courage but sometimes, when fighting fires, things go wrong.
That’s what happened Jan. 30, 2014. By all accounts it started as a typical day on the job.
“Everything about that day, everything that lead up to that day, was normal,” said Sterling Sudderth, a battalion chief with the Greensboro Fire Department. “I had no idea that it was a life-changer.”
The initial call came in just after lunch as a car fire at 811 S. Elm St. on the outskirts of downtown Greensboro. Responding units quickly learned that the car on fire was actually inside of an auto repair business.
“As soon as we got off the truck, I saw the fire — heavy fire — coming out of the auto repair shop,” said Sudderth, a captain at the time. “At that point, between the amount of fire and the amount of smoke, I think everybody knew that this had gotten beyond that single car fire.”
Sudderth’s truck, Engine 11, got there first. He and his crew grabbed one of their larger hose lines from the truck and got right to work knocking back the flames. Ladder 7, led by Captain Shane Boswell with firefighters Bryan Bachemin and Matthew Clapp, got there a couple of minutes later.
The flames were hot and intense, but the crews kept working.
“We went as far as our hose line would reach, which I think was like 30 or 40 feet into the building,” said Clapp. “They were right in the front door, in the front room.”
“I remember taking my camera and looking and I said, ‘man, this is a lot of fire, and it’s a lot of fire in the ceiling,’” said Boswell. “And at that moment, I was trying to make a decision that we might need to back up some.”
But within seconds, it was too late. The roof at Knight Auto Repair came crashing down and the four firefighters — Sudderth, Boswell, Bachemin and Clapp — became trapped inside.
“Everything lifted and evidently that’s when the roof had opened up and it vented somewhat,” Clapp said. “I remember it was just beautiful. You could see all this fire and then I don’t remember anything else until I woke up pinned to the ground.”
When the air from the opening in the roof hit the fire, the building lit up like an inferno.
The first mayday call was for then-Captain Sudderth. He was pinned, but conscious and remembers the fire raging all around him and on top of him.
“It became crushing. And then the heat from the fire — the wooden beams were on fire — started coming through the gear and I remember thinking this is bad,” said Sudderth. “I remember kicking my boots because I felt like I needed to still create some sort of visual.”
One of the beams landed across his chest — cutting off his air supply to his mask.
“I kept trying to breathe and my mask wouldn’t let me, so I just had this vacuum that got tighter and tighter on my face,” said Sudderth. “And then I started feeling the burns coming through the gear because these beams are on fire.”
Another group — the crew from ladder 7 — was deeper in the building.
Clapp remembers coming to on the floor and seeing Bachemin working to free him from beneath the burning debris.
A second mayday call went out for Clapp. Even after Bachemin was able to free Clapp, there was no way out — only fire.
“I just got as low to the ground as I could, and I just began to think about my wife and kids and I thought hopefully somebody will get me out of here before I die,” said Clapp.
Then they heard Boswell.
“I saw a light shining towards the roll-up door and I knew that was the way out,” said Boswell. “And I started screaming at them, you know, ‘follow me, follow me!'”
“On the way out, we passed this pile of debris and you could see Captain Sudderth’s feet, that’s all you could see, sticking out from underneath this pile,” said Clapp. “And, I kind of paused there for a minute and Bachemin pushed me and was like, ‘you’ve got to get out of here.’ And he stayed to help free him.”
“I heard the saws crank up and it was when the saws cranked, I remember thinking it’s going to take too long because I’m out of air,” said Sudderth. “And, that’s the last memory that I have.”
It took six long minutes and more than a dozen people but finally Sudderth was out.
He was not breathing on his own, so EMS had to resuscitate him at the scene.
Amazingly, all four of the men survived.
“A lot of things went wrong that day, but a lot of things went right,” said Bachemin. “And we’re all still here to be able to do this and that’s great.”
All four men still work with the Greensboro Fire Department and agree that their lives are forever linked.
“Your life is in the hands of the person next to you on that truck,” said Clapp. “You feel that way and you say that stuff and you’re taught that in training, but until you experience it like that, I’ll be forever grateful.”
Sudderth spent 33 days in the burn unit and underwent seven surgeries and two years of rehab. Clapp suffered a broken leg and was out of work for about six months. Boswell had back injuries and returned to fighting fires after several shifts recovering at home. And Bachemin suffered minor injuries and returned to work his next shift.
The four get together — along with other members of the rescue team — on Jan. 30 each year to celebrate their lives.
The last time the Greensboro Fire Department was involved in a mayday call was ten years prior to the roof collapse at the auto repair business.