By Tom Hallman Jr.
PORTLAND, Ore. — An unusual reunion occurred Wednesday afternoon in Southeast Portland, a simple ceremony to celebrate life in a place that could have become known only for death.
A year ago Thursday, teams of firefighters from Portland Fire & Rescue raced to a pre-dawn three-alarm fire raging at Hope N Care, a residential-care facility with 24 residents.
Dispatchers told crews on the way that residents – some bed-ridden, others in wheelchairs – were trapped in the inferno.
Firefighters saved everyone.
“That’s unheard of in a fire like this,” said Deputy Chief Andy Ponce. “Research has shown nationally a fire in this kind of facility often ends up with mass causalities because the residents are immobile.”
To celebrate this outcome, more than 30 firefighters who were on the scene a year ago returned to the care center, at 12045 S.E. Pardee St., to meet residents, shake hands and offer hugs before sharing coffee and cake.
Ponce, in the profession for 30 years, said the reunion was the first time in his career he’d later met people he’d rescued during a fire. It was the ultimate job performance review, with residents applauding firefighters, who huddled almost shyly, not used to this kind of attention.
“To see the results is amazing,” said Ponce. “It’s important to have the personal connection. The opportunity to come full circle today is incredible.”
The last time residents saw the firefighters was when rescuers were in uniform, wearing heavy turn-out jackets, breathing masks that hide their faces, and carrying tools and other gear while rushing through chaotic, smoke-filled hallways and rooms to save lives.
“They’re my heroes,” said Gordon Forthan, who uses a wheelchair. “That morning, I woke up when someone was banging on my door telling me there was a fire. I couldn’t get out of bed. Then a firefighter came through the smoke to get me. I’ll never forget those flames.”
Official Fire Bureau reports from that morning give a sense of what was at stake:
Her room was pretty clear, however there was fire coming out of any openings in the ceiling around light fixtures. I picked her up and proceeded to carry her out the front door. By the time I got to the front door I was losing my grip on her, and I ran into a firefighter who was coming back into the structure after rescuing another resident. He could see I was losing my grip on her, so he took her and carried her the rest of the way.…
I ran to the hallway and… forced the first bedroom I came to, I found a woman on her bed, I was met in the room by a bystander who had broken out her window in attempt to save anyone inside.
I picked up the woman and handed her out the window to the bystander and he assured me he could carry her to a safe place on the Alpha side of the building.
I then went to the next bedroom on my right-hand search and forced the door, was met by another victim who was a larger than average person. A firefighter across the hall helped me load them onto a wheelchair that I had found in her room and wheeled her out the Charlie emergency exit. I went back inside and went to the next bedroom, found a man and assisted him outside on the Charlie side.
Bob Hippler, in a wheelchair, said Wednesday he remembered wondering if he’d die in the fire – until several firefighters carried him outside.
“To see them here today,” he said, “makes me feel grateful.”
Because the fire started in the attic, the sprinkler system was not activated as it would have if the heat had come from below.
Firefighters had to work quickly, because the roof and ceiling could have collapsed on the residents and firefighters at any moment, and toxic gas from burning materials could easily kill residents who had no access to the kind of breathing gear worn by firefighters.
The stand-alone building was gutted and is being rebuilt. At the time of the fire, a second residential building on another section of the property had just been remodeled, and residents were moved in there the day after the fire, said Tim Spencer, the site manager.
During the fire, Spencer and another employee, Hermie Magistrado, went room to room to make sure all the residents were out. In an interview the day after the fire, Spencer recalled seeing “nothing but smoke. I was helping the firefighters any way I could. Wheeling people. Whatever.”
At the time Spencer said he did not consider what he did heroic.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I have two little kids and a wife. I thought about them. But then you hear people screaming. There was no way I was going to turn my back and run. These residents are like my mom and dad. I take care of them.”
On Wednesday, Spencer and Magistrado were awarded the Portland Fire & Rescue’s Medal of Honor.
“It’s all quite humbling,” said Spencer. “But the best thing is for us to meet the firefighters who made a difference.”
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