In the nick of time

Sandusky firefighters tell of teamwork, timing and luck that saved three children from fire amid snow-clogged streets

The Sandusky Register

Dec. 30, 2004



If three children had remained trapped in a burning Meigs Street home for just one more minute last Thursday, they might not have made it.

Searing heat and blinding smoke had filled the one-story building. The three boys still inside were not breathing.

But the work of two Sandusky firefighters and a team of supporters, along with some uncommon good fortune, brought all three children to safety that day.

On Thursday morning, Sandusky Fire Chief Mike Meinzer had called in off-duty firefighters to have more than 20 on staff. With few of the city's roads plowed, medical response crews would need extra hands to carry patients to ambulances, Meinzer said.

At 3:45 p.m., when a person driving by 517 Meigs St. called 911 to report smoke billowing from the home's windows, the city had just begun digging itself out of Wednesday night's snowfall.

According to firefighters who responded to the call, the only two streets that had been cleared at that point -- Meigs and Washington -- were the two that fire trucks needed to get to the home.

When Battalion Chief Michael Yost arrived, heavy fire was blowing out the home's front door and window, according to a report, and neighbors said there were children inside a bedroom.

Firefighter Keith Salinski was on the next truck to respond, and once told of the children inside, he told Yost he was going in. The window was so small that Salinski, one of the city's smallest firefighters, barely fit through with his breathing gear on.

Inside the bedroom, a thick cloud of black smoke forced him to find a wall and feel his way through. Reaching out with one gloved hand, Salinski found what felt like a bed, and then felt a small child's leg.

After finding his way back to the window and handing the three-year-old to Capt. Jeff Ferrell, he searched and found his twin brother between the bed and the wall, and brought him back as well.

"Neither of them were breathing when we passed them out," Salinski said. "They were just limp bodies. Neither of them would've lasted too much longer."

Once brought to the ambulance, firefighters used hand-pumped breathing devices to suction the soot and saliva from the boys' mouths and lungs. After a few pumps, both began to sputter their first breaths, said firefighter Dave Degnan.

Inside the home's living room, where the fire had reportedly been started by one child playing with matches or a lighter, Ferrell was searching for a third young boy reported inside.

"You're looking through closets, through drawers, through piles of clothes, the kinds of places kids hide in a fire," Ferrell said. "You start to worry, because there's so much smoke, so much heat ... you could just feel it everywhere."

Finally, walking from the living room to the kitchen, Ferrell found a child on the floor, picked him up and carried him to a passerby waiting at a window. Battalion Chief Yost successfully performed CPR on the child, and all three were taken for treatment.

Meinzer said Wednesday that all three children have been improving since they arrived at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, and only one is still using a respirator.

An 11-year-old girl who was found suffering from diabetic shock outside the home was taken for treatment at Firelands Regional Medical Center and was released after recovery.

According to an investigation by fire officials, a smoke detector was found without a nearby battery in debris inside the home. Because the fire caused more than $30,000 worth of damage to more than 50 percent of the structure, it will likely be condemned.

Ferrell said the fire could have taken a greater toll if there had been less men, worse roads or just a few minutes more.

"Any of those kids, if they'd been in a little longer, would've been in bad shape," he said. "I'm glad we got there when we did."