Golden Valley rescuers pull woman from burning home seconds before flashover
It was the strange behavior of his horses that first alerted Paul Bissonette Jr. to the fire that was engulfing the home behind his.
"I went out to feed them and they were acting all crazy. I think they were trying to get my attention," he said. "As soon as I saw the fire, I started yelling for my wife to call 911."
Bissonette is a member of the Mavericks, a Golden Valley Neighborhood Watch group. Neighborhood Watches are groups of neighbors who keep an eye on each other's property and a look out for any suspicious characters who might enter their neighborhood.
Bissonette made a beeline for the back bedroom of the home on Maverick and Destiny Way and broke out one of the windows.
"I heard this blood-curdling scream," he said. "I started calling her. The smoke was so thick, so black I could hardly see her. I kept telling her to stay on the ground and crawl toward my voice."
The woman finally made it to the window, and Bissonette was able to grab hold of her hands, but he couldn't lift her out because of his bad back and the windows of the trailer were too high.
"I just couldn't do it. The smoke was starting to billow really badly and then she went silent. She wasn't responding to me any more," he said. "I thought was going to watch her die right in front of me."
It was at that moment that Robert Davies arrived on the scene. Davies is also a member of the Mavericks and had spotted the smoke from his home on Mobile and Burro Drives.
"At first I thought it was someone burning brush, but when the flames started reaching the roof I hopped in my truck and drove over to see what was happening," he said. "When I got there, people were screaming, 'She's in there! She's in there!'"
Davies ran around to the back of the home and found Bissonette barely hanging on to the woman. Using a stepladder that was leaning against the house, Davies, dressed in shorts, jumped through the broken window headfirst into the woman's bedroom.
"It was the only thing I could do. I couldn't just sit there and watch someone die," he said, tears welling in his eyes.
Once inside the burning home, Davies was able to get the woman to her feet and support her so she could put her face to the windowsill and get fresh air. But the two men still couldn't get her out of the burning home. The windows were too high inside the bedroom and Davies couldn't get enough leverage to lift her out.
"She's kind of a large woman," he said.
Breaking the rules
Off-duty fire Capt. Steve Winn also responded to the scene but was unable to help because he didn't have any equipment and the fire was too fierce.
"We are trained not to go in, unless we have the right equipment," Golden Valley Fire Chief Tom O'Donohue said, his voice still raspy from the smoke hours after the fire.
He ended up violating his own rule.
O'Donohue was the second firefighter to respond to the fire. He said the call for a structure fire on Maverick and Destiny Way came in around 7:35 a.m. As soon as he ran out of the district's administration building door, he spotted a thick column of black smoke rising in the air about a mile away.
"When I arrived I thought the whole house was involved," he said. "People were yelling to me that there was someone in the house. I thought we were going to have to do a body recovery."
O'Donohue started to do a quick run around the building to determine how bad the fire was, how he would get in and where the firefighters would attack the fire once the fire trucks arrived. As he came around the back corner of the house he spotted the two men outside the window and he could barely see the woman and Davies inside. The bedroom was the only room in the house that wasn't on fire, he said.
The orange glow of fire
O'Donohue called for firefighters to meet him at the back corner of the house for an immediate rescue and then, dressed in his turnout gear and without an oxygen bottle, he dived in the window.
"I knew we only had seconds get both of them out," he said. "The fire hadn't broken into the room yet but I could see it licking around the top of the door. I thought we were going to have two patients."
Once inside, the smoke was so thick that O'Donohue and Davies could hardly see. They broke out a second window near a bed that was in a better position for them to lower the woman out of the home.
As they struggled to move the woman across the room to the new window, Davies said he could see the orange glow of the fire under the door and flames starting to sneak in through the gap at the top of the door and crawl across the ceiling.
O'Donohue noticed it too and with a mighty heave from both men they lifted the woman up and through the window, head-first down a ladder to Winn. He caught her and eased to the ground. Davies was right behind.
"I felt kind of bad because we just kind of tossed her out the window head-first, but it was the only thing we could do," Davies said.
As he left the room he could see that the flames had spread about halfway across the ceiling. O'Donohue had barely cleared the window on the way out when the room flashed over and flames shot out the window.
A flashover is where the heat and flames from a fire get so hot that everything in the room suddenly catches fire.
"Flames rolled through the top half the window," Bissonette said.
According to call logs, it took about seven minutes from the time the call reached dispatch to when the men finally got the woman out of the house.
"It seemed like an eternity," Bissonette said.
"We strongly discourage people from doing something like this," O'Donohue said. "But without help from these men, that woman would have been dead. It was an amazing rescue.
"I don't use this word often, but these men truly are heroes. Thirty seconds later and she would have been dead."
"Please, don't call me a hero. You guys are the heroes," Davies said, referring to O'Donohue and his firefighters.
"It was a team effort. I couldn't have done it without him and he couldn't have done it without me," Davies said.
The woman and O'Donohue were transported to the hospital for smoke inhalation. He said the woman was coherent and talking when she was loaded into the ambulance.
The hospital let O'Donohue go after drawing some blood and leaving 12 sticky patches on his skin from a heart monitor.
The fire required three engines, two water tenders, 15 firefighters, the chief and deputy chief to put it out. The home is a complete loss. A fire marshal is picking through the debris to determine the cause.
Davies said although he was scared out of his mind, he would do it again.
"If I see something like this again, I have no choice. I have to help," he said. "I don't know how you guys do this."
"Yeah, well, we're not the brightest bunch," O'Donohue joked. "But seriously, we love serving our community. I know many of the men, if they didn't have families to support, would volunteer. They love the community that much. This is our reward for training every day, being able to save a life, and that's what these men did."