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Dave Roepke and Wendy Reuer, Published October 13 2010

APARTMENT FIRE: Firefighters describe being trapped in blaze

Capt. Keith Johnson and firefighter Josh Christofferson were assigned to attack the fire on the third floor at Monday night’s Galleria On 42nd apartment complex fire.

As they were attempting to bring up a hose connection, an apartment living room collapsed around them.

“It happened very quickly. I was about to swing (an ax). I heard a groan, a crack, and saw the ceiling come down,” Christofferson said Tuesday.

The drywall and ceiling fell on Christofferson’s head and back.

Johnson was just 8 feet away from his partner when he instinctively yelled for Christofferson to stay in the doorway of a bedroom.

“The last thing I saw of Josh was his boots going into the bedroom,” Johnson said.

The men were separated but were both trapped inside the collapsed apartment.

A hose crew was right behind Johnson and was able to assist him.

Christofferson, however, was trapped in the bedroom area. He called a mayday and rushed to a window where a ladder crew was able to reach him.

Both men escaped uninjured, and they both credit their training for the reason they were able to remain cool under such heated pressure.

So how do firefighters clear a burning building?

Fargo and Moorhead fire officials said Tuesday that it’s a matter of prioritization.

Saving lives – people and pets – is the chief concern, followed by putting out the fire, said Jesse Schmidt, a spokesman for the Fargo Fire Department.

Johnson said at the time they went into the fire, the possibility of someone trapped in the building was still real.

The firefighters were still in what is called a primary search – a survey of all the rooms of the building.

“It’s methodical, but it’s still quick,” said Moorhead Fire Marshal and Acting Fire Chief Rich Duysen.

Depending on staff levels and the blaze’s size, crews may be extinguishing fire and searching at the same time, Duysen said.

“It’s a lot easier in a house fire than a huge building,” he said.

In a complex as big as the Galleria, firefighters have to knock down locked doors with axes and crowbars, a difficult job in what is often a smoke-filled space.

“It can be extremely taxing on the crews when you’re on a bottle of air and you have to exert that much physical energy to execute your assignments,” Schmidt said.

A collapse can happen fast, in a matter of minutes, Duysen said. “It’s really hard to predict.”

Schmidt said the floor where the fire ignited is the first place searchers look, working out from that area. Next, the search goes to the top floor above the fire source, as flames and smoke rise, he said.

After a fire is out, crews head back inside for a more detailed secondary search. If possible, all crews are given different areas than they had in the primary search, Schmidt said.

“You would want them to swap because we’re creatures of habit,” he said.

Duysen said firefighters from Moorhead and Fargo train together on a regular basis, so situations calling for mutual aid typically go smoothly. Ironically, the departments had scheduled a joint training session for Monday night, he said.

Through it all, one of the most important aspects is staying calm, Duysen said.

“That’s one of the best things you can do,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporters Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535 and Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530