Fire chief shares personal story of trauma, perseverance

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Trapped and alone in a smoke-filled room with zero visibility, flames raging outside and the temperature rapidly rising to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit, Airman 1st Class William Taylor realized that he was alone. His only hope of staying alive was to get himself out of there – and fast.

“I was afraid for my life – I can honestly say I was burning,” recalled now-Chief Master Sgt. Taylor, 100th Civil Engineer Squadron installation fire chief, remembering the horrors as he spoke. “All I could think of was, ‘how am I going to get out of here?’ because there was only one way out of this room. My wife was pregnant with our daughter and all I could think of was that I might die in there and leave my child and wife alone.”

It was July 26, 1997, and Taylor – a 20-year-old firefighter newly stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama – went out on what was supposed to be routine fire training. However, little did anyone know, the day would end in disaster and leave scars – literally – which would stay with him for the rest of his life.

This year’s Fire Prevention Week theme is “Every second counts: Plan two ways out.” Because of his personal experience, Taylor now makes it his mission to highlight just how important that is, and shared his story to make others aware of the dangers.

“As a new Airman, I wanted to perfect the craft that we’re entrusted with, the technical ability, and I prided myself on that,” he recalled. “One of the things we were afforded the opportunity to do on occasion was go out and train with our mutual aid partners, and we received very good and realistic training.”

That particular day’s training involved going out into the community with a local partner fire company and burning down a condemned house.

“We weren’t doing live fire evolutions at the time – or we weren’t supposed to be doing them anyway,” Taylor said. “We were only supposed to be doing search and rescue evolutions in the house.”

That’s when things started to go devastatingly wrong. The fire company wasn’t following the required safety protocols and procedures, and there was a miscommunication between the on-scene chief and one of his lieutenants.

“They’d taken a drum and put pine straw in it to allow it to smolder so it would produce smoke inside the house,” he explained. “It was a search-and-rescue training scenario and I played a victim; not that big of a deal if you don’t have fire going, but the fire code says that’s a no-no – you don’t use actual people as victims. That’s why we have mannequins.”

“As a new firefighter, I didn’t know what the fire code said – I was out there training, I knew we were burning the house down, and they needed somebody to play a victim; being the good Airman, I volunteered so we could move forward in the training scenario.”

Taylor said the first time he volunteered that day, everything went according to plan. He was put into the corner of a bedroom and had a couch laid on top of him so just his foot was showing, to make it harder for the firefighters to find him.

Although he had his protective gear, Taylor said he wasn’t wearing his breathing apparatus because he was told it wasn’t required. Nevertheless, the search and rescue team went in and eventually found him in the bedroom and pulled him out of the house. For the next training scenario, another volunteer was requested and again Airman Taylor stepped forward.

“As I was already drenched and sweaty underneath my gear, I told them I’d play the victim again, to save anyone else having to put theirs back on. I don’t know why, but something told me to bring my air pack with me this time,” explained Taylor. “There was no reason to take it inside as it was supposed to be the same standard search and rescue training like we’d just done. But for whatever reason, I brought it with me and put my mask on – which was a good thing as it turned out.”

It was this hunch that saved his life. Unbeknown to him, the smoke had turned into a raging fire, producing thick, black smoke that quickly filled the house, making it impossible to see anything.

Put back in the same scenario and positioned under the couch, Taylor soon realized something wasn’t right. He’d been laying there much longer than he should have been, and nobody had come in the house – let alone the bedroom – to search for him. Because there had been no accountability that day, the other firefighters and civilians had forgotten he was inside and alone.

After struggling to get himself out from under the couch, he immediately realized the room was pitch black. Knowing he would be in danger if he didn’t get out of there soon, he quickly thought about what to do. Thankfully, the training he’d received as a new Airman came flooding back, and he instinctively knew his next move.

“When you make entry into a house you usually call out which way you’re going so you don’t get lost inside a structure,” said Taylor. “It’s a common tactic – we’ll call out ‘left hand’ or ‘right hand’ search pattern, and that way you stay grounded to a wall. Then you just keep going and don’t ever separate from the wall; at some point you’re going to have to make it out of the house. If you have to back out then you turn around and keep the wall on the other side, never passing a door or a stairway – you just keep going.

“I knew the layout of the house because I did a walk-through prior to going into the bedroom,” he continued. “Although there were two doorways in this house, the fire company had taken the door handles off one of them and boarded it up from the outside. Not only that, but two windows on the back wall had also been boarded up on the inside with tin roof covering nailed to the inside of the window sills.”

Taylor explained that as almost everything had been boarded up, there was only one way in and one way out of the house – the doorway across the other side of the room. By the time he reached it, the plastic linoleum flooring had completely melted and he still couldn’t see anything.

“Because I was low down near the floor as I felt my way along the wall, when I got to the doorway I ended up sliding my hands into basically hot glue,” he said. “It seared them almost instantly; I almost lost a few of my fingers, and my fingerprints are now gone on a couple of them. There was no skin left on my hands as it had been completely burnt off – that’s when I knew I was in pretty bad shape.”

Taylor was now in a lot of trouble because he couldn’t use the one exit out of the house. He could feel the massive amount of heat being generated from the fire outside the door and was starting to panic. At that point, he started backing into the corner of the room and turned on his personal alert safety system device. This small device is a distress signal unit used by firefighters entering a hazardous environment, and beeps loudly after a short period of no movement. However, on this occasion, nobody heard it.

Taylor finally managed to make his way over to the boarded-up window. Before smashing the glass he first had to use his elbow to break through the tin covering and rip it off. It was only then that those outside finally realized he was still inside.

By now, the fire was completely out of control. Even though the firefighters had attempted to put it out, it proved too much for them. Finally, trying to get Taylor out of the house, they decided to go back around to the other window, smash it and shoot a hose line inside.

The fire chief explained that steam can be deadly, causing temperatures to spiral up to eight times those at ceiling height and equalizing throughout the area. As soon as the other firefighters sprayed water into the room where Taylor was trapped, the temperature throughout immediately shot to 800 degrees, instantly burning off the skin on his back and shoulders and causing him to drop to the floor in agony.

“I survived a flashover, only for someone to come in and steam-burn me,” he said, pointing out the irony of the situation. “As I stood up again, people were reaching inside to grab me – only problem was, it was a smaller window and angled, so when one of the firefighters grabbed my shoulder harness on my air pack, the top of my air bottle kept hitting on the windowsill.

“I kept yelling at him to let go. During confined space entry and exit training we’re taught to go through the diagonal part of a triangle, as that gives you the clearest width to get out. I was trying to angle my air bottle to be able to get my shoulders out of the window, but the guy wouldn’t let go. I ended up having to forcefully make him so I could get through. Once I managed to get partially out, some of the others grabbed hold of me and dragged me the rest of the way. As I fell to the ground, I landed on my air pack and hurt my back. Then they started cutting all my gear off me.”

Minutes later, the roof collapsed. That was when pain hit and his body started going into shock. With second- and third-degree burns covering 25 to 30 percent of his body, he was immediately put in an ambulance and then endured the 45-minute journey to the nearest intensive care unit.

“Accidents happen – nobody’s perfect. All these standards we have in place, and all these core, critical positions we have within the fire department, they’re there for a reason because you can get very task-saturated very quickly on an emergency scene,” Taylor explained. “If you don’t have a safety officer who is watching the overall operation to make sure it’s safe, or an accountability officer to make sure we know where all our people are at, things can escalate quickly. But they didn’t have any of that in place back then.”

Throughout his career, Taylor has made a point of sharing his story to other firefighters and leadership to instill in them the importance of safety and accountability, and it has had a positive impact on others.

“We as firefighters love the call to fight fire, but you always have a little bit of fear in the back of your head about being trapped or injured during a call,” said Master Sgt. Curtis Brown, 100th CES Fire Department deputy fire chief. "That fear is crucial to ensure you are always mindful of safety, and respect the abilities and potential of fire. It’s very unpredictable if you don’t know what you’re doing. Even though safety has always been my number one priority on the fire ground, Chief Taylor’s story has magnified its importance.

“I’ve always known Chief Taylor as one who followed the rules and guidelines to a ‘T’. He’s very passionate about what he does, and taking care of Airmen. He does hold a very high standard, but for good reason,” the deputy chief continued. “One thing I really appreciate about him is whenever anything does go wrong, the first words out of his mouth are, ‘Is everyone okay?’ or ‘Was anybody hurt?’ This truly shows that his priority is the safety and well-being of his people.”

Going through such a traumatic, life-changing event would be more than enough to make most people want to get straight out of the Air Force. Instead, for Taylor, it merely built his resiliency and pushed him on to achieve greater things.

“You have significant emotional events in your life that mold you; this one for me was directly tied to my AFSC and what I love to do. From that moment on, I told myself I would ensure that when – not if – I was a fire chief, I would make sure that safety, training and family oriented culture were my main focal points to ensure the team’s success. My firefighters know they can trust me as their chief and that I’ll always make decisions that are in the best interests of the fire department and the Air Force. Due to my experience, I’ll ensure their safety and the safety of the community in which we serve, while always being mindful of our fire service tenets: the desire to serve, the ability to perform and the courage to act,” the fire chief said.