By REID TUCKER
At no point during his 10 years as a firefighter had Lt. Chad Nelson seen or been a part of anything like the events that took place on Sept. 14.
It was on that night that Nelson and fellow DeFuniak Springs firefighter Randy Hatcher, three Walton County firemen and five representatives of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office were principally responsible for saving the lives of a woman and her three young children when they became trapped in their burning home. Nelson and Hatcher entered the home, smoke already blanketing the floor and, upon locating the four occupants huddling in a bathroom, carried out who they could and guided the rest to safety.
Despite the harrowing situation, Nelson said he and the other first responders, including five volunteers and two apparatus from the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department, went about their work just like they always would have, only with that much more haste. A typical home will last no longer than five or six minutes before a sustained fire will prevent emergency personnel, even wearing full gear, from entering the building, so timing and speed were crucial. In fact, Nelson said he was so rushed and the smoke was so thick that, regardless of the special circumstances, he could not even say with any degree of certainty what those he saved looked like.
For him and other fire fighters, there was simply a job to be done and not much time to do it.
“It was the same old normal thing every time I go into a fire,” Nelson said, describing his thoughts as he entered the building. “The biggest thing going through my mind was ‘I’ve got to get these folks out of here as fast and as safely as possible. That’s about it. That’s the only thing that goes through a fireman’s mind.”
The 10 emergency responders were presented with commendations and tributes from U.S. Congressman Jeff Miller and Florida state Representatives Marti Coley and Brad Drake at a ceremony attended by local members of government, friends and family on Oct. 15 at the DeFuniak Springs Fire Department headquarters. Nelson and Hatcher, as well as Walton County firefighters George “Buddy” McLeod, Brad Martin and Battalion Chief Bill May, WSCO Sgt. James Pitman and deputies Darryl Goddin, Brandon Newsom, Thomas Thillet and Dustin Cosson, were all presented with plaques in recognition of their display of uncommon bravery.
“So often we citizens go to bed and take it for granted that no harm will come to our children or ourselves,” Coley said, as she presented the men with their plaques. “When something happens it is reassuring to know that we have men and women that will be so self-sacrificial, that with no regard for the own safety they will go [into a burning building] and rescue someone.”
Pitman, the first person on the scene, said the incident was remarkable in that no one was seriously injured, as emergency personnel responding to a fire like the one that engulfed the young family’s home usually find one of two things. Most often a building’s occupants will have escaped on their own, possibly with minor scrapes or burns or even more serious injuries. Otherwise, if trapped inside the blaze, a person has only minutes before succumbing to the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning or else choking to death on the smoke.
“It’s not very often that you go to a fire that you have the family in there, and when you do have a family in there it isn’t very often that they’re rescued alive,” Pitman said.
After responding to reports of a structure fire and after some searching, Pitman located the family of four. He then kicked in the front door in an effort to gain access to the building and rushed across the threshold without any breathing apparatus. However, even crawling on his hands and knees could not keep him out of the reach of the thick smoke and he was forced to exit the home just as the firefighters arrived on the scene.
Emergency personal continued to battle the fire until it was under control after extricating the children and helping their pregnant mother escape through the bathroom window. Reports indicate that the fire may have been caused by an electrical problem, but that the majority of the damage was contained in the kitchen. The home had smoke detectors, but it is unclear if they were in working order or not.
Nelson, speaking for all the emergency responders who worked that night to save four people, said the whole event was one of the most significant of any of their lives. He said the rescue speaks volumes to the dedication of local emergency professionals and it reflects back on the community as a whole – that this is a place anybody would be proud to call home.
“It’s an honor to be able to do something like that and to get the recognition for it, not just for myself and the other firemen and deputies, but for our little town,” Nelson said.