Within the fire service, many fires traditionally begin very early in the morning, when most occupants are sound asleep. The morning of May 12th, 2005, was no exception, when the members of Ladder 110 in Brooklyn were called out at roughly 7 a.m. for a report of a structure fire in the Gowanus Houses on Baltic Street. As Captain Robert Pav, a 19-year veteran of the job, guided his crew first-in to the box, it was apparent that they had a working fire on their hands – and with victims trapped. A fire involving the living room area of 74-year-old Dorothy Bradford and her 35-year-old daughter Jaqueline was between them and the front door, leaving them no way out.
As Ladder 110 Firefighter Terence Brody, assigned to the Irons position that day, broke open the front door, he and Captain Pav were confronted with two burning sofas, with flames rolling across the ceiling of the apartment. Behind the flames they could hear both women screaming for help. Despite conditions in the interior of the apartment that indicated a potential deadly flashover situation, and without the protection of a hose line, the firefighters made the decision to make a rescue by going directly through and past the fire room to where the victims lay, in a bedroom beyond. “The couch on the right was incinerated and the couch on the left was burning,” says Captain Pav, “and we went right through the middle.”
The choice to do this goes against every instinct a firefighter has, and against everything they’re taught. For Brody, the decision to go through the fire room wasn’t made as easily. “I didn’t want to crawl past it at first,” he says, “but I did anyway.”
Their decision to do so, however, enabled them to find both mother and daughter huddled in a dark bedroom beyond, gasping for air next to an open window. Firefighter Brody immediately led daughter Jaqueline out of the apartment to safety, but in spite of her peril, elderly mother Dorothy was afraid to leave her apartment; she was afraid of the smoke, and was afraid that her legs would give out before she got to safety. “I can’t do it,” she told Captain Pav at the time, “I can’t hold my breath.”
“She was terrified,” says Pav. “She was just trying to stay by the window.”
So Captain Pav did the second thing that firefighters are taught never to do, compromise your own safety by giving your air mask to someone else. “The smoke was so thick, it was hard for myself to go without a mask,” he said. However, despite the conditions and his suffering, Pav stayed with Mrs. Bradford in the safety of the bedroom until the fire was knocked down and a member of Rescue 2 came to lead her out of the apartment to safety. Unselfish acts are a staple of firefighting duty, but to deliberately place yourself in harm’s way by putting the safety of victims above your own is what makes the efforts of Captain Pav so special and so worthy of recognition.