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A must read from STATter911.com: The loss of Captain Jeff Bowen. The inside story from Firefighter Jay Bettencourt, Asheville Fire Department.

Captain Jeff Bowen, Asheville Fire Department.

CaptainJeffBowen.com

Read Part 2

Previous coverage of this fire here, here & here

We are turning STATter911.com over this morning and tomorrow to Firefighter Jay Bettencourt of North Carolina's Asheville Fire Department. You may recognize Jay's name from our coverage of the fire on July 28, 2011 at a medical office building at 445 Biltmore Avenue that took the life of Jay's friend, mentor and captain, Jeff Bowen. Jay was seriously injured in the fire.

Late last year, Jay contacted me about telling his story. Until our conversation, I had heard a few "inside" details about Jay and Captain Bowen being trapped in the building, having run out of air from their SCBA. What I had heard, while quite dramatic in itself, did not compare with hearing it directly from the man who was beside Captain Bowen the whole time.

Jay's motive in sharing these details is two fold. He wants to help others learn from this tragic event. In addition, Jay is trying to bring attention to the website CaptainJeffBowen.com. On the website you can purchase a t-shirt and/or make a donation, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Captain Bowen's family. Please give your support.

Firefighter Jay Bettencourt joined the Asheville Fire Department two years prior to the fire at 445 Biltmore. He also spent two years with the Swannanoa Fire Department in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

Jay tells STATter911.com that he is extremely grateful for the support he's received from the citizens of Asheville, his fellow firefighters and the leadership provided by Chief Scott Burnette.

The article below, The Loss of Captain Bowen, Part 1, are Jay's words. They are not the words of a professional writer. They come from a firefighter who watched his friend die. They come from a firefighter who came close to dying himself. There is language in the story that you normally don't see on STATter911.com. Some of you may even be offended by a few of the words. But these are the thoughts and emotions of a firefighter facing the biggest challenge of his life. I wouldn't think for a moment of censoring it. I urge you to read every word of it.

The Loss of Captain Bowen, Part 1

By Firefighter Jay Bettencourt, Asheville Fire Department

The morning of July 28 started like most shifts. We checked in with the crew working off, went over the truck and started cleaning. Before breakfast Rescue 3 responded to a HAZMAT call where we served as the RIT for Engine 11 (one of Asheville’s HAZMAT Company’s). We chuckled and joked through the call unaware of the tragedy that would soon unfold.

Upon returning to Station 3, I went to Ladder 10 for driver training. After driving Ladder 10 for the morning, Larry Morrow told me my truck had been dispatched to a structure fire at 445 Biltmore Ave.

I loaded my gear into my truck and started driving to the fire. I called Jeff, Clint and Brad on the way to get a size-up or real time report about our truck assignment. I got no answer from anyone. I later found out that they were interior on their first bottle. I considered running hot, but thought it better to go routine. I drove past 3 and briefly considered going there; I dismissed this thought and went on to the fire.

Firefighter Jay Bettencourt, Asheville Fire Department.

It was a hot, clear day as I made my way through the city on to Charlotte St. and then Biltmore Ave. At one point I wanted to speed up, but got a feeling that I was “right on time.” As I approached 445 traffic was stopped on Biltmore, and I could see some cars turning around and coming back down the hill. I pulled out of the traffic line into the oncoming lane. I went through the line of cones blocking the road and parked in a parking lot on the corner of Biltmore Ave and Brooklet.  When I pulled up, I saw 3 at the NE corner, and smoke and fire on the NW side of the top floor.

A cop was walking toward me, but stopped when he saw me getting into my turnout gear. Just as I finished dressing, Josh Walton backed down Biltmore to the hydrant on the corner where I was parked. He pulled his LDH. I walked up and told him I would catch the hydrant. Josh grabbed the Hydro assist and hydrant bag for me then drove off. He turned in on the north side of the building where Ladder 1 was operating.

I was without a radio so I stood in the street waiting for a signal of some kind. I saw a guy in an RTS (a local convalescent ambulance service) uniform standing between me and Josh who seemed to know what was happening. I nodded my head to indicate we were working together and a moment later he swung his hand around in the air in a circular motion which meant Josh was ready for whatever. I charged the line.

Rescue 3 was parked on the NE corner of 445 Biltmore Ave. I jogged up the hill about a block to my truck and noticed L1 booming up as I passed the north parking lot access road. I got to 3 and pulled a radio, air pack and axe. I turned on my radio but did not select a fire channel.

I walked in front of the north side of the building and saw smoke and fire coming out of a vented window. Weezy and Josh were doing engineer stuff and Mike Russell was on the first floor of the parking deck functioning as safety. I heard him yelling to the drivers to put their helmets on. The ladder was on ground floor 1 – below the first. I went up to Russell thinking he was at staging command and asked him what I should do. He told me Rescue was inside and that I should wait for my crew to come out and join them. As he said that, Chief Burnett walked up in full turnout gear and helmet! I knew this was big at that point. Just then I saw Caption Bowen walk out of the building. I was struck to see him alone, but ran over to join him. 

I yelled, “Captain, are you tryin’ to burn something without me?”

Then he replied, “Well you’re the one that wanted to drive.”

“That will never happen again.”

I followed him over to staging just on the south side of the west ground floor entrance. I saw Clint and Brad there getting hot swaps and went to help. Paul Walker and I put a new bottle on Brad. I looked up from that to see EJ and Larry and CO standing behind E2. Chief Marzzella assigned Larry RIT and EJ said his crew was in rehab and wanted to join rescue. EJ was told to report this to command, which he did, then grabbed an axe off of E2.

Now we were going in. We walked quickly down the hall to the stairwell and headed up. The stairs were very smoky and I clipped in my regulator immediately. I was surprised at how thick the smoke was so far down the line. When I hooked up I looked up and down the line to see everyone else on air as well. We moved up the stairs and I thought about the elevators, and remembered the SOG I had recently read which stated high rise fires that were on the 5th floor or below would be fought from the stairs, not elevators. At that point I put the elevator out of my mind.

We took a long time going up the stairs not wanting to breath hard and waste our precious air. I realized, as I am sure everyone else did, that we were going to have limited time to operate on the fire floor due to our dwindling air supply.

At no point had I received a situation report about the fire or conditions or our assignment or even a radio channel, which would bite me later.

We moved up the stairs in a line. Jeff in the lead followed by Clint, myself, Brad and then EJ. On the fourth floor landing we started to encounter dry hose, which I assumed was a high-rise pack. It was attached to the stand pipe and sort-of stretched. Jeff tripped (on the hose I assumed) and Clint stopped to ask if he was okay. Jeff said he was fine and kept moving. We encountered more spaghetti hoses on the 5th floor landing and I noticed there were a lot of hoses around, but NO WATER!

We entered the 5th floor into very smoky conditions, but not much heat. This has been a point of contention with other companies and firefighters. Some firefighters came out reporting extremely high heat; however, due to the leap frogging of crews on this fire every company saw this fire in a different state. The smoke was grayish and diffused my light. There was about 2-3 feet of visibility. Our team moved through the thick haze fast, following a hose line and darting around corners. As we circled our way around the building I knew I was becoming disoriented, but felt it was important to keep up with the man in front of me. I assumed he had a good idea of where we were going.

The smoke seemed to be lighter as we traveled along the line. I saw a clamp that belonged to Brad holding a door open. I was glad to see he had used one of his new clamps, and that it seemed to be working well. We went through the chocked doorway into a room where the hose ended. Our company formed a circle around the nozzle and squatted down. We stayed there for quite some time in a circle.

We waited there for a couple of minutes while Jeff called for water and we all burned our air supply. I noticed everyone checking their air, and I thought we would be ineffective due to our low air and lack of water. I thought we should be searching for victims or fire extension, but there we sat waiting for water. Jeff called for water. Then Chief Denning told us to come out if we had no task. Jeff said we would stay and wait for water or stand by in case another crew needed us. Captain Eddie Wyatt called on the radio and said we needed to open the stand pipe valve. The valve was open. Later Russell called to E6 and told them the ladder was their method of egress. I had no idea where that would be or where the fire was, or how to get back to the stairs other than following the hose.

Around this time 6 gets water and calls it into command. Jeff gets on the radio and asks 6 if they could use our help. They said yes and we were off swerving through the dark and smoky abyss. We made our way into a hallway that had an alcove off of it containing six (?) small rooms. We stopped there while Jeff did god knows what. It was very hard for the 5 of us to communicate well since our crew was too large for everyone to take part in interactions. I trust my company and my officer. I knew Captain Bowen would lead us in the right direction. I told Brad I was going to search the small rooms even though I thought they had already been searched. We didn’t have anything else to do at the time. Due to our lack of water I felt ineffectual throughout the operation.

After that I poked my head into a room across the hall from the alcove. This room was full of files that were burning in the decay stage. There were little camp fires on top of every box.  It was a room with an exterior wall lined with windows. Talk began about breaking the windows. Someone checked in with Jeff and he gave the all clear. EJ radioed down to command to have the ladder operator stand clear while we took the windows. After we took them I looked out and the ladder was nowhere to be seen. We were on the west side of the building and had mistakenly thought we were on the north side, where the ladder was. I saw how truly lost I was. At about this time Brad’s low air alarms started going off. He told Jeff and, after some, delay we started making our way out.

I thought that this was collectively the best decision we had made. As we worked our way out along the hose line, I saw a helmet and a light pop out from around a corner. I asked who it was and if they were okay. They said they were good and we moved on. There was a lot of starting and stopping as we made our way out. I was too far back in the line and it was too dark for me to be clued in.

The order heading out was Jeff, Clint, Brad, me and EJ. We rounded a couple of corners and ran across Mike Branon flaking out a high rise pack. I asked who it was and by his cursing I could tell it was Mike!

“Oh fuck this fuckin’ hose. Fuck Man. God Damn it.”

Our overabundance of limp useless hose was very clear to me. Again we stood around for a while then started moving out. At some point the order of our line changed. As we got to the stairs I saw Clint go down followed by Brad, then Jeff blew by the stairs and started heading down an unfamiliar hallway.

In hind sight it was clear where we were, but at the time I was very confused. I looked back at EJ in shock and said, “We gotta get him.” So off we went chasing after Jeff. I was yelling, “Jeff, Jeff, we have to go down, there is no one here. We have to go down. Let’s go.” But every time I got close to him he would dart off and go deeper into the fire area. I could not imagine why Jeff was doing this; his low air alarm had started soon after Brad’s. Mine started just as Jeff darted away, and I knew we were in a bad way. Around this point I thought to myself, “I bet they will give us the rest of the shift off for this bullshit.”

Jeff made his way back into the alcove where we finally caught him. He looked surprised as if he was expecting something to be there that was not, maybe a downed firefighter, maybe a charged hose line. At this point I grabbed Jeff by the pack straps and yelled, “We are leaving!”

I was taking control. EJ was behind pushing Jeff on. We made it a few steps and I realized I had no idea where to go. I yelled to EJ, “You keep pushing him. I am going ahead to find our way.” I turned and took maybe 3 steps around a corner and realized what a bad plan that was. The smoke had intensified and was getting darker. I turned to go back and Jeff was right there as I turned around. He said, “I am out of air. I need to buddy breathe” in a frantic voice. My heart fell to my boot. Though I was scared, Captain Bowen seemed to be back in the game and that gave me some comfort.

The Loss of Captain Bowen, Part 2 will run tomorrow on STATter911.com

Comments - Add Yours

  • Sharppointy1

    Compelling, frightening reading. Jay, you are a good writer, I can picture myself there beside you guys.  Thanks for sharing this with us. Thank God you are alice to do so.

  • mdff

    Excellent, honest and intense reading. We all must learn from these experiences.

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  • Edwin

    Great reading, it sounds very similiar to the Charleston LODD's in 2007. A lack of experience, no water, poor tactics and no real game plan to mitigate the situation. POOR air management and complete failure to maintain situational awareness. Another fine example of why we must train for the unexpected and be prepared. God bless all those affected by this terrible tragedy. 

    • MFBlocal865

      No offense, but I think your comment shows an underlying issue within the community of our profession, especially on the internet.  Jay's story is most definitely one to learn from, but what his and others like it is most certainly NOT is an open opportunity to arm-chair quarterback another Department's actions.  Unless you were right next to Jay and the rest of these guys in that stairwell, or unless you know and understand every aspect and detail of an incident, then who are any of us to state that a certain firefighter/crew/department acted with "lack or experience, poor tactics, no real game plan", etc.?  The best that any of us can do when coming across stories like Jay's (especially on the internet) is to take in the account, learn all that we can from official analysis and investigation, relate that knowledge to our own departments and practices, and use all of this to better ourselves and those that we serve with.  While this story is most definitely an invitation to learn, it is far from being an invitation to judge.

      • Anonymous

        I think your taking his comments to seriously….he is stating his opinion and an opinion that has been stated out there by many others (just go back to the original story to see that) Learning from these things means disscussing and sometimes saying the hard to hear truth.
        I dont think any of those comments were made to insult or disparage anyone involved with this incident, or in the Worchester fire (also mentioned) If you listen to Chief SUllivan (then Lt ) talk about the Worchester fire he will admit to all of those things stated in the above post.
        Have a little thicker skin and lets read part 2 before making assesments on someones thoughts and opinions.

        • dave statter

          As most of you know, I am for an open dialogue on everything we post here. This one included. Jay was well aware that this is an open forum when he decided to post his account on STATter911.com and asked for no special consideration.

          That said, my personal opinion is very similar to MFBlocal865. This is a little different. I have no doubt that the Asheville Fire Department and Jay Bettencourt by now have learned lots of things about the fire at 445 Biltmore that could have been done differently. I am not sure at this point, even the smartest among us, will be able to provide anything that will be particularly enlightening to them.

          I tend to think this is a case where reading Jay’s gripping account, taking it all in, making some personal mental notes about what you might do in this situation and making a donation or buying a t-shirt at CaptainJeffBowen.com will provide the greatest value to all.

          Again, that’s just my personal opinion and you are free to express yours here.

          Thanks,

          Statter

      • Moretimeintheshithousethanyou’vehadinthefirehouse

        My thoughts, exactly, Captain! At least, after reading Edwin's post, those are the CIVIL thoughts I have towards Edwin!

    • nc fire capt

      Edwin you should deffinatley hold the armchair quaterback comments on this one. I am not defending anything AFD did or did not do, but the NC Dept of Labor(OSHA in our state) found no wrong doing or faults with the Dept and managment of the fire. This is not to say that NIST will not or that some things could have been different, just saying preliminary reports say it was handled correctly. We all have moments of clarity sometimes too late, and this may have been one. My prayers and support to Jay and all those involved. Also to all my brothers and sisters that have gone on before us.
       

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  • Anonymous

    This sounds earily familiar to Brett Tarver, thanks alot for sharing this story, even though difficult it is something that is going to allow fireman for generations to come to go home to there families and stay safe.
    Cant wait to read part 2 tomorrow

  • A. Gates

    Excellent writing. I too felt like I was right there with you, Jay. Looking forward to reading part II tomorrow. May hat is off to you, brother.

  • NBFRVOLLIE

    Thank you Jay for sharing your story. Stay Strong and Safe Brother

  • North Chief

    God bless Capt. Bowen and Jay. As with any tragedy, fire service or not, we must learn something from them all. One part I wonder about is he said the Capt. kept darting off deeper into the fire area for some reaason. I suspect maybe there was a mask problem of some sort and he was getting too much CO? Probably no way to know that now. Anyway, Jay your dedication to your Captain is something I hope we can all learn from, you are a good firefighter and friend and I would be proud to work along side you.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this story.

  • http://www.SAMatters.com Richard B. Gasaway, PhD

    At the invitation of Chief Burnette, I was given the very honorable opportunity to conducted a facilitated debriefing of those involved in the incident at 445 Biltmore Avenue. This included extensive interviews of command staff, companies, officers, firefighters and the entire shift together. 
    I also had the opportunity to conduct three days of situational awareness and fireground decision making training for Asheville Fire Department in  May 2011 (2 months before Captain Bowen died).
    I feel this puts me in a position to be uniquely and intimately aware of this incident and the Asheville Fire Department's operations. On those qualifications, I will share my observations.
    The Asheville Fire is a first-class fire department with first-class leadership. It would be grossly unfair to cast any accusations based on limited knowledge of the facts and circumstances. There are firefighters out there, for sure, who look for fault like they'll win an award when they find it. 
    It is sad because I know those who are judging are not learning and there is so much to learn from tragedy by those who choose to be a student.
    The actions of Firefighter Bettencourt and the other members of the department are among the most heroic I have ever seen. The manner in which the fire chief, the command staff, and the members opened themselves up to learn everything they could from this incident and to make changes has been truly impressive.
    Few departments, even after tragedy, have to guts to invite an independent evaluator in to crawl around under their organizational pelt and see everything. And I do mean EVERYTHING… Good, bad and ugly.
    Asheville did. The members opened up and shared with me things that were hard to say and hard to listen to. Emotions run deep in the midst of tragedy. The men and women I interviewed were open, honest and recounted details that I am confident contributed to the development of a list of recommendations that will help Asheville Fire Department learn and grow.
    Earler in my career, when I was less experienced and less wise, I too would have been among the first to judge the performance of others in harsh ways. I don't do that any more. Now I look at events with tragic outcomes and ask:
    Why did the things they were doing make sense to them at the time they were doing it?
    What can be learned from the answer to that question that will make all firefighters safer?
    How can I share those lessons in meaningful, non-judgmental ways?
    I hold the Asheville Fire Department in the highest respect. Not becauses they're flawless, but because they are of the mindset of being students of their tragedy. May we all be willing to learn more and judge less.
    Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you, or your department, see the bad things coming in time to change the outcome.
    Dr. Richard B. Gasaway
    Fire Chief (ret.)
    Situational Awareness Matters!
    http://www.SAMatters.com
     

    • Gillian

      WOW. Thank you. As a youngish (ok so maybe I am holding a little tight to my youth) firefighter I greatly appreciate your perspective on this. I love to say "how can we make that a positive statement?" but you take that to a whole new level.
      As I read the account I felt I was there with those men, I felt the gut wrenching bad juju Jay was describing. (By the way, GREAT JOB Jay, this must have nearly impossible to write and you have given us an amazing gift to learn from, God Bless you for sharing your tragedy so that others of us may learn and bnefit.) Now as I go back and read it with your questions beside me I think about each decision as the "right one for them at the time and why" I am able to analyze the decision and what tools and information I might need to make such a decision someday.
      Dr. Gasaway, I look forward to meeting you in June in Houston and taking your SA seminar, so much to learn.

  • PPFD

    I agree, very powerful writing!
    Dr. Gassaway, great to see you here. Hope you can contribute more.

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  • R Smith

    WOW…..

  • Vince Mulray

    Very powerful story that shows just how fragile of a system we work under.  Stories like this one have to raise the awareness for all of us to learn and prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.

  • Crowbar

    Boy am I glad I read this blog.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent writing and I thank you sir for allowing us to read it and learn from it.

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  • DCFD

    Good read, God bless!