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Dec. 26, 2004
Four Days In December
Chief Billy Goldfeder

Wednesday, 12-22-04- was the anniversary of the Line of Duty Deaths of three firefighters in Keokuk, Iowa. 

December of 1999 was a tragic time for the nation's firefighters as we also know that we also lost six Brothers in Worcester, Mass. Worcester firefighters Paul A. Brotherton, Jeremiah M. Lucey, Timothy P. Jackson, Joseph T. McGuirk and fire lieutenants Thomas E. Spencer and James F. Lyons III were killed on December 3, 1999. 

In Keokuk, Assistant Fire Chief Dave McNally, 48, Firefighter Jason Bitting, 29, and Firefighter Nate Tuck, 39 were killed while attempting the rescue of three trapped kids-who also perished. The three firefighters left eight kids of their own behind. 

The firefighters died when a flashover occurred while the three were doing their search. The fire started in the kitchen of an old wooden two-story b/f home that had been converted into apartments. Staffing is a major issue in Keokuk, and that morning, four of the five on-duty firefighters arrived on scene and upon hearing the mother screaming that her children were trapped inside, they immediately went in after them. When "Mom" screams that her kids are inside-we go in. 

The three were inside, the assistant chief and two pump operators. A Lt. who was on the hydrant-couldn't see the building, and one firefighter was on side "A", starting to pack up to back the interior members up. The Chief made the terribly difficult decision to leave the scene for three minutes to personally transport a non-breathing rescued child because there were no other resources available. None. The hospital was a minute away. When he returned, the flashover had occurred with only the Lt. and the one firefighter outside. 

There are several reports out on the fire from both NIOSH and the NFPA. You can view the reports by searching the www for numerous articles related to the fire. There was also a two-part story on this fire in Firehouse Magazine, Close Calls column, last summer that you can also refer to. 

Time has passed since that fire. Chief Mark Wessell and the members of the KFD have moved forward with some significant changes since then. Staffing remains the same as back then. As a matter of fact, they almost had their budget cut this past year but made it through with full support from the elected officials. And the KFD catches quite a bit of work-fires that happen in Keokuk pretty regularly. What they did do though, is take the lessons learned from the tragic fire and the loss of their men, and applied that loss to changing the way they operate. The reports and stories explain all the details. 

Probably though, one of the best quotes I have ever heard came from Chief Wessell. Mark is a good man who has shown true leadership in taking the KFD forward, I don't know anyone who doesn't agree with that. Since that fire, Mark and I have become pretty close and I am continually in awe over how he has made it clear that his fire department will change, and has. Mark makes it clear that as horrible as this was, he will do whatever must to make sure it never happens again. To all of us, he made a statement that sums it up.... 

"Always remember that we as firefighters are there to help people with a problem, while also doing ALL that we can to never become PART of that problem" 

It's some good old common Iowa sense that all of us can use and follow in training, responding, operating and coming home. 

December remains a heartbreaking month. In 1998, on December 18, 3 FDNY firefighters from Ladder 170 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, Lt. Joseph Cavalieri, FF Chris Bopp and FF Jimmy Bohan died on the 10th floor of a "fireproof" multiple dwelling on Vandalia Ave. whose sprinklers had been shut down prior to the fire. They were doing their jobs when something suddenly went wrong. The window let go in the fire room and the wind caused blow torch like flames to engulf the fire floor raising temperatures in the hallway to about 2000 degrees and burn marks to the floor. All three died as their internal body temperatures raised and knocked them unconcious. All of them wore their PPE and full SCBA with facepieces on and were doing what we are expected to do, everyday. 

As Christmas approaches, it's hard for any firefighter to celebrate the season without also remembering the Worcester Six, the Keokuk Three and now, most recently Baytown, Texas Firefighter Nito Guajardo. He was killed in a single family dwelling fire last Monday, December 20. He will be buried Christmas Eve. 

We wish all of you a happy and safe holiday season with a sincere wish that many more of us "return to quarters" safely, while not becoming a "problematic part" of any incident.