Fire Chief Tom Pour said that when the stakes are high, “you risk a lot to save a lot.”
That’s why, despite the thick, black smoke, leaping flames and intense heat coming from the home that firefighters already knew would be a total loss, they went inside anyway.
The firefighters who battled the midday blaze at the home in the 2600 block of Old Caseyville Road on March 4 were recognized for rescuing two residents trapped inside during a ceremony at Belleville City Hall during Monday night’s City Council meeting.
Pour said the fire produced “unbearable heat.” It was so hot, he said, that the firefighters who entered the home didn’t know their comrades were spraying water in. It turned to steam before it hit them.
“It was incredibly hot in there. I’ve never been in any place that hot in my life,” said Capt. Jordan Araiza, a 13-year veteran of the department. “It was floor-to-ceiling, black, churning, hot smoke.”
Araiza and firefighter Tyler Whitney found the homeowner, 68-year-old Nettie Agnew, just steps inside the front door. She was in cardiac arrest when they brought her back to waiting firefighters, who then carried her to an ambulance.
Matt Preston, a rookie firefighter just hired in January, joined Araiza for the second rescue. After searching blindly for Agnew’s son, 36-year-old Alvin Pate, they finally found him unconscious in a back bedroom behind a closed door. Araiza said he and Preston got Pate to the hallway of the home, where they handed him off to engineer Tom Kriegel. Kriegel took Pate the rest of the way.
Both Agnew and Pate were rushed to hospitals. Agnew was airlifted to the burn unit at St. John Mercy in Creve Coeur, Mo., where she went into cardiac arrest several more times during the afternoon and evening hours. She died of severe burns and smoke inhalation early the next day. Pate also suffered serious burns and smoke inhalation but survived.
Pour said the fire likely started in the lower level garage. When Agnew’s other son, Charles Pate, went down from the main level to investigate a smell of smoke, he discovered the fire, ran out the open garage door and called for help. With the door from the upper level to the lower level now open, the fire raced upstairs.
Charles Pate tried to get back to his mother and brother by using the main level front door, but the flames had already become too intense.
Even though the fire eventually resulted in one death, Araiza said it could have been two.
“The fact that we got both of them out and were able to revive both of them — unfortunately the one died — there’s some consolation,” he said.