Firefighter Mark Pretz was at the Rocky Run Fire Company in Media Thursday night when the crew of four got the call to respond as part of the fifth alarm that brought about 200 firefighters from some 30 fire companies to tackle the blaze at the Barclay Friends Senior Living Facility in West Chester.
By the time they arrived after driving 10 miles with sirens blaring, the Rocky Run team had to park their truck blocks away and walk into the fire zone. They were immediately assigned to pushing patients about 100 yards to a staging area to be taken to shelters.
"Some of them were dementia patients," said Pretz, 26.
The residents were all bundled up against the cold. On the way up the hill, neighbors brought up more blankets to keep the them warm.
The Rocky Run crew were then sent into the structure to do an "overhaul," during which firefighters open up any void spaces looking for fire or embers and then alert the hose crews when they find something need extinguishing.
They work in a group, keeping an eye on each other, rotating two in and then two out, every 15 minutes to prevent fatigue. They had on their full gear including their self-contained breathing apparatus, which are good for about 40 minutes.
"Every fire has its own specific challenges," Pretz said, adding no building is the same. "When in fire attack mode like this, you have to take very careful precautions and pay attention to your surrounding and not get jammed up."
They were also looking for any residents.
"Anytime we go into a building, regardless what stage of the incident, we are always searching for life," he said. "What one person misses another might see."
They were to look throughout the room, in closets, under beds, he said.
Pretz found himself standing in three inches of water and about a foot and a half of fallen debris. The walls were stained with smoke and there were heat patterns from more intense temperatures up near the ceiling area.
"We were near the collapse zone," he said.
In some of the rooms, parts of the ceiling had collapsed, the dry wall was soaked and had broken away, insulation and beams had fallen down.
"We could see straight through to the sky," Pretz said.
Some rooms where the doors had been shut had been "spared" the fire and heat, he said. He opened the closets to find the residents' clothes still neatly hanging, untouched by flame.
There was a sprinkler system in place, he said.
"To me it did look like they were activated, they were dripping," he said. The pipes looked intact.
Pretz said only a few small pockets of fire were visible when he was working.
"It could have been a lot worse if the crews weren't working together so well," Pretz said.