What I did on my Winter Vacation

My visit to Colonia New Jersey FD 

            So as a kid I never got the writing assignment, “What did you do over summer vacation?” So I thought I would write about my experiences while visiting friends, made while teaching at an academy for fire cadets. Mike Sherron and I teach at the Ohio Youth Fire and EMS Academy (OYFETA) which is where we met explorers and instructors from the Colonia FD. We hit it off immediately and converse regularly even due to the distance between Ohio and Jersey. While at OYFETA the explorers were affectionately called “the Jersey boys.”

            Asst. Chief Mike Mackey was present at the camp and was chosen to become Chief starting the following year. As tradition in their department, a bi-annual dinner is scheduled to celebrate the new officers starting their 2 year terms as officers. Mike and I were invited on behalf of the chief to attend the dinner. As you can see Mike and I accepted whole heartedly. The kicker to the invite was to bring our turnout gear and “ride-along” with the CFD.

            Tony Giardina was our liaison with trip planning and would be our place of residence while in Colonia. Mike and I commented that we felt like visiting dignitaries. We had transportation to and from the airport in FD vehicles and were accepted into their department without question. Immediately upon arriving at the station we were given PASS tags for our gear. We decided to go for lunch after visiting the station and were accompanied by Tony. After nearly an hour and a half of being in Colonia, they were dispatched to a first alarm fire in Hopelawn for a residential fire. En route we were advised to go to the Islen FD for standby. It should be mentioned that a firefighter gave up his seat so that I could go with the responding engine to the fire.

            We were listening to the fire from Islen’s station when we heard a rit get dispatched to the fire for a firefighter down in the basement of the structure. At that time a second alarm was struck and we were en route to the scene. Upon arrival we donned our SCBA, grabbed our tools and approached the scene. We were ordered to relieve the crew upstairs. Our assignment was extinguishment and pulling ceiling upstairs to find the fire in the attic. Our crew consisted of the Lt, and 6 other firefighters including myself. Upon arrival we were told the fire initiated in the basement and spread throughout the balloon construction house.

            Upon entering smoke conditions were light on the first division with hazy gray smoke on the second floor. We were advised by the team we were relieving that the fire was in the attic but could not be found. As we started to pull ceiling the smoke became darker and started to bank down. The Lt on our engine was using the TIC and directing operations. After pulling ceiling in the bathroom we moved into the upstairs bedroom and continued to open up the area. Although the dry wall was removed no changes were realized it was not until we started removing insulation that flames were visible. Our hose line was used to extinguish all visible hot spots. While applying water to the flames we were advised by the rest of our team that the fire had moved behind us blocking our exit. We decided to retreat extinguishing the flames in the bathroom and withdrawing to the first floor for the next incoming crew.

            As we reached the first floor and exited the structure we learned terrible news. The driver of the Hopelawn engine had suffered a heart attack on the scene and was found slumped over the wheel of their engine. The operator 58 year old Bruce Turcotte was an ex-chief for Hopelawn. Prior to arresting on scene he was helping advance hose lines into the building. FF Turcotte was taken from the scene by Woodbridge Township ambulance to the nearest hospital with CPR in progress. FF Turcotte died at the hospital.

            I have never been on the scene of a Line of Duty Death. I do not wish to experience this again. However, as we all are taught when discussing RIT, continue your assigned task. DO NOT STOP YOUR ASSIGNMENT; and the firefighters of the Hopelawn department continued to do their assignments that day. The operations on scene were aided by the Metuchen ladder company and with their assistance as well as those on scene the fire was extinguished. It was later learned that the fire was a fatal and investigations are currently being conducted into the origin of the fire. All that was given was that is was “suspicious.”

            After fire operations concluded the Hopelawn firefighters were told of the events that transpired while they were extinguishing the fire. The emotions from me as well as those on scene were ones of respect and condolences. I felt extremely odd. I was accepted into the Family of the CFD, but how do I show the appropriate feelings for Hopelawn’s firefighters who have received the ultimate sacrifice and not appear fake?

            It is said in Ohio where I work full time that we are a family; but, we have nothing like the family that exists in Colonia. It truly is a family. Everyone has a nickname, the Ed’s, Vinnie’s and Tony’s that ride there at this volunteer department have a role, a purpose and an identity. Yet Mike and I were accepted into this family without question just like we belonged there all along. We were essentially just out of town cousins that were accepted and brought into the fold. Previously I said someone gave up their seat so I could go on a working fire; this is unheard of where I’m from. My family’s motto for riding entry is, “You can have the nozzle, when you pry it from my fingers.” Yet here they gave up that chance so I could “ride-along.”

            I guess the moral of my story is networking in the fire service really does happen at all times when you least expect it. Respect is earned at all times whether its teaching explorers/cadets or riding along with other fire departments. I can never repay the Colonia FD for the experiences I gained while in their presence. I cannot fully express my condolences to the Hopelawn FD for their loss. Most of all I am totally in awe of the family aspect of the fire departments on the east coast. Thank you so much for allowing me to see how your organizations function and giving me access to your firehouse. I am/will be in debt to you for a long time to come.

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One Response

  1. Ray Hughes Says:
    February 17th, 2012 at 7:08 PM

    Neal you and Mike can come back to Colonia anytime you want. You did a excellent job at that fire which was extremely difficult to fight plus the fact that we lost one of our own early into the fire. Everyone there knew Bruce well and keeping our heads together while they tried to save him was extremely difficult. But they managed to keep doing their job so no one else was put in danger until the fire was extinguished. Also you forgot to mention the firefighter riding with you from Virginia Beach. Dean rides with us every time he comes home to visit his parents.
    Ray Hughes
    Fire Commissioner
    Fire District # 12 Colonia