Today, July 28, is the fifth anniversary of the line-of-duty-death of Captain Jeff Bowen of the Asheville (NC) Fire Department. Captain Bowen died in a fire in a medical office building at 445 Biltmore Avenue. That fire almost took the life of Firefighter Jay Bettencourt who desperately tried to save his captain.
About six months after the fire, Firefighter Bettencourt gave me the honor and the privilege of publishing his first hand account of the fire that killed his friend, mentor and captain. Firefighter Bettencourt’s motive then and now was for other firefighters to learn from the loss of Captain Bowen. Jay gave me permission to re-post this today.
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. The account is raw and to the point. 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 urge you to read every word of it. I will re-post Part 2 later. In addition, you can also watch Asheville Fire Department Chief Scott Burnette talking about the death of Captain Bowen in the recent NFFF video, Giving Courage: LODD Chiefs Speak.
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.
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.