50 for 50: Station 10 - Saving the Captain in the Stairwell
A hot Friday in June of 2007 tested Station 10 when an intense fire in an under-construction hotel almost took the life of a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Captain.
Engine 10 Capt. Fred Morello took his crew to the construction site about once a month that spring to observe the construction as the building went up. The four-story hotel would be one of the tallest buildings in Station 10’s area, and he wanted the team to see how it was built.
On June 30, the building was not yet finished. The sprinkler system was not activated, and there was not yet a fire department connection to deliver water. It was a dangerous building in which to fight a fire.
This story is part of Hillsborough County’s 50-for-50 Series, a historic review of some of the memorable events, dates, and people in the history of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, which was born on Aug. 27, 1973. Want to know more? Read additional stories that show the growth, bravery, and specialized operations of Hillsborough County’s largest department.
When the call came into Station 10 that morning, the crew could see the smoke the moment they pulled out of the bay.
Indeed, the dark grey cloud blowing southwest could be seen across the city. The construction crew had successfully evacuated, but the building was close to other structures in windy conditions and threatened to create problems for the neighbors.
Within a couple short minutes, the crew ran a hose line up the stairwell and attacked the fire on the fourth floor. Engine 10 was joined by Engine 6 and Ladder 6 in battling the fire on the top floor of the hotel.
About eight firefighters were on the floor when it looked like things were getting too dangerous.
The incident commander called for an evacuation on the radio because the unsecured windows were blowing out of the building and letting the wind add too much fuel to the blaze.
Capt. Morello kept water on the intensifying fire in the hallway to protect the stairs until all the firefighters were in the stairwell heading out of the building. He wasn’t sure it was doing any good, but he needed to get everybody out.
It was David Grumbley’s first fire. On the job less than a year, he had all of the training but none of the experience. He was on Engine 10 with Capt. Morello
He remembered all of those visits to the site as the building rose from the ground that year, like watching grandkids grow up. Each visit, the hotel got bigger.
Grumbley was one of the first firefighters in the building running a line up the stairs and battling the thick smoke. Nothing was working like it should have because of the construction. It was a worst-case scenario in many ways.
He was doing everything his training told him, but the unfinished building was making it a tough place to work.
“Evacuate that fourth floor right now,” came the command across the radio.
A voice from the fourth floor confirmed the crew was evacuating.
Ladder 14 crackled onto the channel: “Chief, we are laddering up the east side in case Engine 10 has to make an exit.”
Incident command assigned Engine 35 to be the RIC team – the Rapid Intervention Crew responsible for rescuing a firefighter if necessary.
Morello held off the fire long enough for the crew to descend into the stairwell to evacuate, but when he followed, something went wrong.
He was stuck near the top of the stairs in thick, dark smoke and couldn’t work out what snared him. In zero visibility, he couldn’t see or feel which part of his equipment was caught. Recognizing he was in trouble, he called a mayday – an unusual move reserved for desperate circumstances.
Morello’s airpack had caught on a partially installed stairwell handrail. The fire was intensifying and getting closer.
“Mayday May …" the radio cut out.
He does not remember hearing a response.
His facemask was melting.
He couldn’t comprehend the radio chatter.
He started to lose consciousness.
Ladder 6 Capt. Jesse Cash was the last one down the stairs ahead of Morello. As he neared the bottom, he noticed he wasn’t being followed like he would expect.
Cash and Engine 6 Captain Jody Lopez went back toward the intensifying fire and heavy smoke to look for Morello, who was not responding to calls.
They found him on the third-floor landing, barely conscious. Cash and Lopez picked Morello up and started carrying him down the stairs.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Lopez called into the radio. “Engine 10 Captain down. Coming downstairs.”
As they descended, more crew from Engine 6 met them to help lighten the load.
“I believe I had to be about 30 seconds from not making it,” Morello said this year, recalling the incident for HCFR’s 50th anniversary.
Everyone made it out of the building safely that day, and HCFR contained the blaze quickly so that it did not pose a threat to any other buildings.
Morello does not remember being carried out of the building but later found a bruise on his leg in the shape of a hand where somebody was holding him so tightly that they left a mark on him even through his bunker gear.
For Morello, it was a visual reminder of the bond between Station 10, Station 6 and all the men and women of Fire Rescue who do everything in their power to save lives, every day.