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.
The article below, The Loss of Captain Bowen, Part 2, 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. 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 2
By Firefighter Jay Bettencourt, Asheville Fire Department
As Jeff and I started moving, a mist of steam and hot water hit EJ on the side of his face. He turned to see where it was coming from; knowing it meant the nozzle company was operating in that direction. When EJ turned back to face Jeff & me, we were gone. He stood there for what must have seemed like an eternity looking for us. EJ was sure we would pop out of one of those doors of the alcove. He felt confident we were still there, he just couldn’t see us. He noticed his low air alarm had stopped going off, which meant he must be dangerously low on air, and he considered calling a Mayday. As he considered his situation in that smoky dark hell, he decided to walk ten steps in the direction the mist had come from. When he got there he saw Jake Long manning a nozzle and he knew where to go from there.
EJ hurdled Jake and made a beeline for the door running along the hose line. He followed the hose through a breached wall to a broken window and jumped out onto Ladder 1’s bucket. Just as EJ landed on the bucket he heard our Mayday go out. He wondered if we had called a Mayday for him, alerting command that we had lost a firefighter. So he told Captain Hendricks who was acting as division command, to call IC and tell them “I’m OK.” While this radio traffic is going on another Mayday comes in. And EJ realized that Jeff and I were in grave danger.
It is my great regret that I lost track of EJ during that scenario. I was overwhelmed and didn’t have the mental capacity to keep track of him. I am very grateful that he had the wherewithal to save his own life. It should be noted that after this incredible ordeal that he went through — on his second working bottle — EJ saw that there was still fire to fight and went back in for two more bottles.
Meanwhile, I had been buzzing for a considerable time and I knew I had little air for one, much less two. I yelled back to Jeff, “Call a Mayday!” and started pulling my buddy hose. My buddy hose was attached to my pack with a quarter turn latch and I had some trouble accessing it. I think at this point I took off my gloves for better dexterity. I dropped to my knees to pull Jeff’s hoses and within a few seconds I hooked up to him.
And, oh how my heart broke when I heard his regulator vibrating and free flowing down by his waist. It only took a couple of seconds before I was sucking rubber and had to unclip. I had listened to Jeff call the Mayday as I was hooking up to him, but I wanted to call my own. Jeff dropped down to his knees and we started crawling out. He was standing up in the smoke when he unclipped from his regulator due to running out of air. I can’t help but wonder if this could have made the difference between living and dying.
We made it to the next doorway when I stopped Jeff and told him we needed to unclip our buddy hoses for ease of movement. That went fast, just a couple of seconds. Then we made our way out the door to the center of the floor where the elevators were. I called a Mayday, and then told Jeff I was going to find a way out. He was on his hands and knees over his radio. I could hear radio traffic and I assumed Jeff was calling in the cavalry. I later found out that Jeff was vomiting in his mask.
I crawled a short distance and ran into the elevator bank. The smoke was banked down below the buttons, and I was confused because I had not seen the elevators on my way in due to the heavy smoke. This made me feel even more disoriented. I considered hitting the buttons if I could find them, but I didn’t want to take the time to look for them, and then wait for the car, if it came at all. The idea of dying while waiting for an elevator was unappealing to me, so I moved on. I later found out that the elevator was blocked open at the bottom floor and would not have come up. I started sleeping easer when I found out the elevator would not have saved us.
I left the elevator and found a limp hose. I started to follow it just like we were all taught. It did not take long for me to remember the mile of limp hose all over the floor and realize this fucking hose could be a road to nowhere. When it’s all limp there is no way to tell what’s what.
At that moment I became a little angry. I thought of all those frantic people outside, no doubt scrambling to do something to help. But what could they do? Jeff and I were all alone up here. I remembered watching Cool Hand Luke with Jeff at the station. The line, “We in here diggin’ and dying and they out there livin’” came to me and really hit hard.
A moment before I left the hose line I had a vision of my family. Not a thought or a memory, but a clear vision. Just their faces right in front of me. And without words my dear, sweet son’s face said to me, “Daddy come home, are you going to come home?” I shrugged my reply and said “I don’t know, but I’m not going without Jeff.”
Then I had my turning moment. I saw Jeff in a vision just like my son lying there suffering and in pain, and I decided I would rather he live and I die. I wanted to take all of Jeff’s pain and give him all the loving kindness in the world.
I abandoned the hose line and called my next Mayday, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Come fucking get us!” As I was talking on the radio I looked up and saw a window on the west side of the building. I thought about Lowering Captain Bowen out the window then bailing out but I didn’t think I could throw him out the window and then catch him on my rope. I wondered if that tiny corner of sunlight shining through the vertical blinds of that window would be the last time I would see the sunshine. I had an overwhelming feeling that no one was coming so I ditched my mask, helmet, and radio. I did not want to take the time to put my radio back in my pocket. Every breath of that thick poison was one closer to death. Everything I did was a tradeoff for the breath it took to do it. Now that I was on my own I wanted to be light and fast. I felt sure that what ever happened to Jeff and me was up to me. I had to get us out. It was time to go.
Just by instinct I started down a hallway doing a left handed search in a rapid crawl. I kept my axe and ran into one locked door, then another locked door. Then I came to a dead end and yet another locked door. It had a sign on it saying something to the effect of employee’s only, no admittance. I shook my head and prepared myself for death.
I kept my left hand search going working my way back up the other side of the same hallway. I came to a corner and a door. I reached up and opened it and there before me was a clear lit stairwell. This stairway seemed like a stairway to heaven. I threw my axe in the threshold of the door and did a crawl back to Jeff. He had not moved and was making some groggy noises, kind of mumbling (Jay?) I grabbed him by the shoulder straps. I considered for a second doing a thigh conversion, but decided to just go. I would do it if I needed to, but lucky I didn’t. Jeff and I moved easily to the stairs and I started to drag him down. We got down to the fourth floor landing and I thought it best to call command and let them know where we were. I rolled Jeff over to get to his radio pocket, but when I got to it, his radio was gone. Now I regretted ditching mine. Ah fuck it, we both called 5th floor Maydays, those fuckers can come find us.
So I started pulling Jeff again and I was getting so tired my legs burned. I thought of doing the Filthy Fifty (a CrossFit work out) with Rick, the regular back man I work with on Rescue 3 and I was so glad I had done that. I was getting CO dumb, but I had to keep going one flight after the next. On the flight above the third floor a little bungee loop from Jeff’s gear caught on mine. It took me a moment to make sense of it. When I did, I went for the knife Clint gave me for Christmas, but could not find it. As I was jostling around looking for it, the loop fell off and I was free. I realized how bad off I was at that point. As I was pulling Jeff down the next flight of stairs, I saw his face for the first time since I had left my truck to go drive 10. I thought of how peaceful and exposed he was. Sliding my hand under his right cheek, I cradled his head as I dragged him down the stairs. He landed funny on the next landing and his legs flopped over and lodged him in place. One at a time I moved his legs out of the way, and just as I was doing this I heard a voice from above yelling down to us. I yelled back,” HELP ME! HELP ME! HELP! HELP!”
Finally they were here. The help has finally arrived. I did not mean to, but hearing that voice made me let my guard down, and for a moment I felt like I might pass out. Jeff was set to go, and even though the troops had arrived I still went for one more flight. I was too tired to drag him like before. So I put my feet up high near Jeff, grabbed him with both hands and fell back. I dropped my ass and pulled Jeff down on to me. (DO NOT BELIEVE THE VOICE!!) I have asked everyone in the building at that time and no one called to me. It was a hallucination that caused me to let my guard down and nearly lose my life.
The next thing I remember is Paul Monrow over me trying to put his mask in my face. My airway was too damaged from the smoke and soot. I had to push it away. I tried to say, “Give it to Jeff”, but I don’t know if it ever came out. Paul asked me if I could walk and I said, “No”. Somehow Jeff got in front of Paul and me with his rescuers. I tried to stand and fell down. Paul got me up again and we staggered toward the elevator on the second floor. Paul and I started going the wrong way and Kenny Radford called to us to follow him.
We made it to the elevator and I collapsed in the corner under the buttons. The car was packed. I felt like a little kid looking at everyone’s pants. The door opened just after it closed and I heard people groaning and saying something, but I could not tell what. I felt sure one must have had a boot in the threshold of the elevator and the doors came open when they hit. I later found out that we had gone to the first floor but needed to go to the ground floor, one level below us.
When the doors opened on the ground floor I rolled backwards out of the car. It was important to me to get out of the way, so Jeff could be brought out. I knew he was worse than me, but was not sure how bad. As I looked around in the hallway I saw firefighters and medics at the west entrance and an ambulance outside. I couldn’t hear anything at first. Crawling toward the door I found myself lifted by a thousand hands, and delivered to a waiting stretcher. These few seconds seemed to go in slow motion. I looked up and all these faces kept appearing in front of me. Clint pulled my turnout gear off and kept me steady on the stretcher.
I saw my friend Thomas. I said, “Thomas, give me some water.” So in his southern drawl, he said, “All right man.” He opened a bottle of water and totally missed, pouring it all down my shirt. Later Thomas told me when he did that I gave him a “real dirty look” and he then he knew I would be OK.
I was loaded into the ambulance, and I saw Foster, a medic I know from working at 3. He told me I needed to strip down, so as I was lying on the stretcher I took off my pants and shirt, and was embarrassed because I was wearing my one and only pair of pink underwear.
I asked Foster about Jeff and said he didn’t know. He told me that his main concern at that moment was me. It was a 30second drive to the hospital. Then Foster rolled me off the ambulance and into the ER. I was quickly assigned a room, and before I knew it I was surrounded two deep by frantic doctors and nurses.
I saw Kricken, a medic I know in a flight medic uniform. I asked him if he could give me a ride in his helicopter, he said no. But proved him wrong. My thoughts went back and forth from, “I should just get up and go,” because I was truly fine, to wondering when I would die.
I asked about Captain Bowen several times, but no one would give me an answer. Eventually I started screaming his name hoping he would yell back to me. “JEFF! JEFF!” I would scream. He never called back.
At one point a nurse started praying near my head, and I felt sure I was going to die. I asked one of the nurses if we could have some music, and wondered aloud if he had an iPod. When he laughed me off, and said “no”, I started rapping aloud. WU TANG CLAN AIN’T NOTHING TO FUCK WITH, WU TANG CLAN AIN’T NOTHING TO FUCK WITH, WE BRING THE RUCKUS, WE BRING THE MOTHER FUCKING RUCKUS.
I could hear them in the background, saying, “This guy is freaking out.” And I said, “No, this is what I’m like. This is me.” I looked over and saw a doctor greasing up an intubation tube, a 12 inch long rubber schlong. I looked up at her and said, “Doc. Please put me under before you shove that thing down my throat!”
The next thing I remember is waking up unable to open my eyes. I couldn’t move any part of my body. And felt sure I was under paralysis. I had an overwhelming urge to kick my feet and I felt like that was the key to my survival. I tried with everything I had, every ounce of strength, but my feet would not move. After this effort I passed out.
Later Kricken told me every 40 minutes or so they would see me stirring in the helicopter. They would have to be quick in getting more sedatives into me, because I would try to pull the intubation tube out of my mouth.
I came to again, and once again tried to kick my feet. This time I was successful, and was very pleased with myself. I vaguely remember feeling the sheet bounce off my legs, and losing consciousness. Sometime later, I opened my eyes and saw the outline of my wife’s face. I closed my eyes, and the outline moved to the other side of my head. Her face was directly above mine. I could only see her face. Everything else was darkness. I thought I might be dead.
The next time I woke up I could tell I was in a dark hospital room. It was quiet, and seemed like the middle of the night. I was all alone, and realized I was restrained to the bed with a giant rubber tube shoved down my throat. Throughout my time in the fire I thought I was in some sort of hell realm. I must get myself and Jeff out to escape this hell. Waking up in the hospital in that strange condition in incredible discomfort seemed like I was in a new form of hell.
A very helpful nurse came in who must have noticed that I was starting to regain consciousness. She put on a country music channel and put the remote control in my hand. Some country singer was whining at me about some loss she had had in her trailer park. My new mission in life was to make her shut up. Through some highly sedated ciphering I realized the remote control was in my hand. And though I was unable to read the words, I could make out the arrows. I started stabbing one of the arrows with my thumb as fast as I could to make this woman stop. But unfortunately it was the up volume arrow. Now Reba was whining in my ear at full pitch. “Yes, I am truly in country music hell,” I thought.
It took several hours to convince the hospital staff to remove the intubation tube. By using only my eyes and my restrained hands to communicate I let them know that I desperately wanted it removed. At first they told me, “later.” To a nurse in her comfortable uniform without a ball gag in her mouth, later means most of a graveyard shift. To me in my condition, later means five minutes. So I hit the nurse call button about every five minutes. Then they would say, “A doctor has to take it out.” To this I would indicate with my eyes only, that we are indeed in a hospital, and there should be a doctor almost everywhere. Once again, my eyes lost the debate.
I could see the clock across the room from my bed. Although in my drug delirium state I could not read it. I think it was about five hours until the doctor came and ordered the nurse, who told me she needed a doctor to take it out, to take out the intubation tube which I felt decidedly annoyed by.
I started asking about Captain Bowen immediately, and no one would give me an answer. I was told my wife was in the waiting room. So I grabbed my room phone and tried to call her. After two or three failed attempts. I called the nurse and told her my room phone was not working. She asked me if I was trying to call a local number, and I said “Yes, it is an Asheville number.” And using her best Georgia peach accent, she said to me, “Honey, you’re in Augusta, Georgia. They flew you here last night.”
I started justifying why no one would tell me about Jeff. He must be back at Mission Hospital. Maybe they flew him to Raleigh. Then the doctor, who had ordered my intubation tube removed, came in. I asked him if he knew about Captain Bowen. He looked at me as though he was about to lance a boil, and said, “Oh. He’s dead.” Just like that.
He told me that I dragged him out of the fire, and that I was a hero. I wanted to punch this doctor in the face. A moment later a wheelchair came for me, and took me to a hyperbaric chamber. There, I spent the next 90 minutes in Plexiglas tube hacking up half dollar sized chunks of black bloody yuck and contemplating the death of my friend and mentor.
When they brought me back to my room, my wife Lucy came to see me. After a few minutes with her, the firefighters that brought her down came in, along with my mom and stepfather. After a couple hours of tearful greetings, I was released to go home.
A four hour surreal drive delivered me to my house where Chief Burnett was waiting, along with other chiefs, city officials, and a barrage of firefighters. I went around and hugged each one of them individually. This trip was no small task, due to my condition. And then I told Chief I was going in. And there I was back on my sofa. Just over 24 hours after the original call to 445 Biltmore had gone out. I was at home in a daze. What just happened? Is it still happening? When will it stop happening?
I cannot express the gratitude for the firefighters who came in for Captain Bowen and me after working through the point of exhaustion on this shorthanded fire, and continued to work long after we were gone. There was still a fire to fight. Or for all the brothers that came in off duty when the news of our MAYDAY spread through the city. These people truly exemplify what it is to be a firefighter.