HISTORY TEACHES IF WE DO NOT REMEMBER, THEN WE WILL FORGET.....

Chief Eastham Remembers Emmons: Words of a Hero

Updated 6 years ago by Tony E. Rutherford, News Editor
Chief Eastham Remembers Emmons: Words of a Hero

January 13 marked the anniversary of one of the darkest nights in Huntington history. On that night in 2007, the historic Emmons Junior Apartments caught fire, killing nine people. On Jan. 13, 2015, members of the Huntington Fire Department, Mayor Steve Williams, and community members appeared at a candlelight vigil near the cleared space of the former apartment buildings.

At the memorial, Williams honored firefighters stating, ""In the sound of chaos, when that fire breaks out, and everyone else is running away, they made the decision in their life career to run in."

The fire brought a renewed insistence upon fire safety upgrades for particularly high rise structures. For instance, the 2014 fire at the Morris Building despite its intense smoke and water damage was confined to the roof and elevator shaft thanks to sprinklers. The upper roof portion of the shaft triggered the blaze.

Sources have told HNN that the scaffolding surrounding the older elevator shaft portion of the former Anderson Newcomb/Stone and Thomas building relates to brick by brick demolition of a portion of the upper shaft. It's next to the new Marshall University Fine Arts Center.

When the university purchased that building, they did not buy an adjoining portion, which, when open, shoppers saw as part of the same department store.

Significantly, Huntington City Council on January 12, 2015 heard first readings of Huntington Police Department mutual aide agreements. Fire department mutual aide assisted in preventing a worse scenario at Emmons and at the Morris Building.

Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli explained at the meeting that the routine agreements continue the status quo. Ciccarelli told council members the agreements allow other law enforcement agencies to assist the city during an incident such as the Huntington High evacuation "crisis" or Huntington to assist other agencies such as a recent triple fatality outside city limits.

On the night of the Emmons fire, current fire chief Carl Eastham was the last person out of the building. The heroic firefighters melted helmet has been often seen as a symbol for bravery.

Following the fire, Eastham spoke to HNN and other media organizations about fighting the blaze. The interview below comes from 2007. The reference to Chief Fuller is now retired Greg Fuller.

Carl Eastham, WOWK's Dee Delancy at Memorial (file photo)
Carl Eastham, WOWK's Dee Delancy at Memorial (file photo)

 ***

Here’s the interview with Eastham at the memorial service days after the fire in 2007:

Chief Greg Fuller indicated that “one of the firefighters ran completely out of air. His officer was able to bring him to the front window , signal a mayday , and we were able to get the aerial ladder into position.” Fuller called this a “late stage self-rescue,” adding the heat “melted [the firefighter’s] helmet on his head. We were about 15 seconds from losing the crew.”

Lt. Carl Eastham was the firefighter whose helmet melted as he made a rescue. Having just returned to work, he gathered at the Salvation Army, next to the Emmons Junior Apartments, for a fellowship and memorial service Saturday afternoon Jan. 27, 2007.

Chief Eastham Remembers Emmons: Words of a Hero

Eastham told HNN that all the firefighters from all responding departments gave 110% effort on the tragic fire. In fact, he recalled two firefighters actually moving a ladder that takes six men to position into place for a rescue.

HNN asked Eastham to tell the story of his heroism for our readers. Despite being “tough” to recite memories of the fire, here in Eastham’s words are what he recalls of Jan. 13:

“When we arrived here , one of the guy’s who was in charge was right over there …first one on the scene. We came in with three trucks. [There were] people in the windows. We tried our best to come up with timely accounting of what everyone saw when they got there, coming up with 40 plus people in the windows at the time we arrived. When you have [only] nine to twelve people [i.e. firefighters] on the scene, that does not leave any room for error.

 

“Those guys just do what they do. People try to take lines in to get an immediate knock down of the fire, to stop the spread, to end it there, to actually help with the rescue by relieving the heat and the smoke. Others went in and rescued within 30 seconds after being on the scene. They were pulling people out. These people were as we refer to them “self-rescued,” but they were disoriented, they did not know which way to go. Our guys just pull them out, set the ladder truck up and start pulling people out of windows.

“It was a hectic event that no one will ever forget. No about of training would prepare anybody for what this event was. Everybody just tried to do as much as they could. In doing so, people got a little bit farther in [the building] than what they should have.

“As much as humanly possible… I seen guys out here that the old adage gave 110%. There was not anybody I know of that did not give that. As horrible an event as it was, there’s not a guy standing here that would not go and do it again, if we put everybody in the same place , we would know we would be able to do somewhat better had we known where everybody was.

Chief Eastham Remembers Emmons: Words of a Hero

“When you don’t know and you don’t know how to get to them and where they are at, it just makes it so much more difficult. Guys were trying to reevaluate what they did and how they did it. What they should have done; what they could have done. In my humble opinion, everybody done as much as they possible could do…it will never stop the second guessing that the guys will do to themselves. They will always continue to evaluate what I could have done and what I should have done. There’s no correct answer.”

HNN: CHIEF FULLER SAID YOUR HELMET MELTED…

Easton: “Got a little warm. I went out in the hallway [ of Emmons Junior] to see if one of the ladies who was pulled out of the Fifth Floor, if she had anybody with her, and the hallway got intensely hot. There was nobody with her. They were getting her out, but she was not able to make it from what I was told.

“We did all we could do. The other guy that was there with me is over there. He did a good job. We pushed our equipment to the absolute limits and because of that sometimes that’s the kind of thing that happens.”

MEDIA: HOW DID FIGHTING THIS FIRE CHANGE YOU?

 

Eastham: “I’ve been on the department going on 22 years, and I have never seen anything like this. I’ve seen fire that were a lot worse in magnitude , but in what is involved in the rescue, there’s never been anything to compare to it in my career. Our shift had a multi-rescue incident once before over on another avenue, and they were able to rescue seven or eight people. We’re coming up with [at Emmons] in excess of 30 people that were actually rescued from this building.”

 

“I can’t thank any of the surrounding volunteer departments enough for what they came in and was able to help us do. The guys on each department came from everywhere as soon as they heard anything about it. No worrying about do you need to call me; they were just here! Everybody knew the size and magnitude of this building. We just did not have enough personnel and could not get them on the scene quick enough.

 

“Unfortunately this [ nine fatalities] is the outcome. I talked to one of my colleagues from across the state. He was telling me ‘what you guy got to realize is that in Pennsylvania, Chicago, New York, these other large municipalities have fabulous resources and have houses like this go up and lose as many people.

 

“The one thing that I hope comes out of this [fire] is that they make these land owners put alarm systems in their buildings that are inter-connected smoke detectors. And, that they put fire doors up in the stairways. Those are two simple, cheap fixes that could have gone a long way to assisting us in getting people out of this building.”

HNN: WERE THERE MULTIPLE STAIRWAYS AT EMMONS JR?

Eastham: “One come out here on the front, one comes out here on the side, I heard a rumor there was one in the back I had never seen. We just have to quit grandfathering of buildings where residents live in . They feel safe , but they look to every one to make it safe. They look to the laws and the building code and they say ‘it’s gotta meet code.’ They do not understand that because of cost factors there’s a lot of codes they do not have to meet.”

 

HNN: IT’S MY UNDERSTANDING, THE BUILDING HAD VERY RECENTLY PASSED AN INSURANCE INSPECTION…

 

Eastham: “An insurance inspection is completely different from a fire inspection. From my understanding, an insurance inspection is more intone to what the insurance appraiser will evaluate as needs to be taken care of to offset liability. A fire inspection is something that they go in and look at individual things to make sure that everything is complied with to code and make sure everything is being taken care of. They are completely different in how they are performed. I do not know of anything I could use to make an adjustment in it ; one is your insurer trying to protect liability, and two is an enforcer of codes.”

HNN: YOUR MENTIONED ‘AN INTER CONNECTED ALARM.’ THE 911 TAPES APPARENTLY HAVE AN AUDIBLE ALARM GOING OFF IN THE BACKGROUND. CAN YOU EXPLAIN AN INTERCONNECTED SYSTEM?

Eastham: “Interconnected, like this high rise over here will have in it, [means] if the fire alarm goes off on an apartment on the first floor, the apartment on the ninth floor is getting the same alarm. It’s throughout the building, alerting everyone. If they are not interconnected, it goes off in that [one] apartment and that’s the only one’s that know about it. Nobody else in the building knew about it.

 

“There have been reports from people that were able to get out of the building that somebody came by and beat on their door to let them know. We do not know who the person was who was doing the knocking. That did a tremendous amount to alert people, to allow them to get to safety. Some of them had to come back because when they tried to go the stairs were charred with smoke. And, that’s what brings back the fire doors at the hallway and stairwells. That’s what it does, it protects the heat and smoke from coming up the stairways and protect that means of egress. Those are just some of the things that have to be done.”

 

HNN: WHAT ABOUT THE FIRE SAFETY OF HIGH RISE OFFICE BUILDINGS IN HUNTINGTON?

Eastham: “You’d need to address it with one of the fire marshals trained in that specific area. I do know that the fire marshal’s office got [the owner of the West Virginia Building] to put in a stand pipe system, which runs throughout the building so we can interconnect hoses to at that floor and fight the fire from that connection and not have to drag hoses all the way up to it. (Editor's Note: Alex Vence, who in 2007 managed Emmons Junior is now the manager of the city's upgrading jewel in progress, the WV Building.)

“Your typical fire engine has, the longest hose ready to pull off and use is two hundred feet. Two hundred feet will run out real quick, so you have to extend that line and put more hose on it, and time is of the essence.”

HNN: HOW HIGH DO LADDERS EXTEND?

 

Eastham: “We have one of the largest ladders that’s manufactured in the United States. We have a 135 foot aerial ladder which basically will take you to 13 floors, IF you can get it as close to the building and everything just right, the maximum reach will put you on the 13th floor.”