A Berkeley firefighter narrowly escaped death last fall after he was inadvertently left on his own more than two floors up in a smoke-filled building, as flames closed in and his oxygen ran down, a new report and video reveal.
“I knew I was essentially alone, couldn’t see more than about 6 inches in front of my face. I was low on air,” the firefighter recalled. “I said, well, this is what’s talked about, this is what we train for.”
The Berkeley firefighter and medic, Raven Record, got separated from nearby teammates when conditions rapidly changed from clear to “zero visibility” during the First Congregational Church fire on Channing Way last September. He barely got out in time, according to the review. Record and other firefighters who worked the call were interviewed as part of a voluntary video assessment of the incident produced by Auburn, California-based Cahill Multimedia. BFD did its own internal near-miss report and analysis, as well.
Sparks from construction work started the fire, according to church officials. The three-alarm blaze caused millions in damage. The church reopened this month, though Pilgrim Hall — which bore the brunt of the damage — is still out of service. The wind-driven fire caused part of the church roof to collapse. In his 23-minute video report, Jason Cahill — a longtime firefighter himself — weaves together frank interviews with firefighters and dispatchers, as well as on-scene footage and radio transmissions from the day.
When the call came in around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 30, the 911 switchboard “lit up” with reports of the rooftop fire in the historic church, interviewees told Cahill. Crews quickly responded and got to work. Some, including Record, were assigned to pull down the ceiling as part of their efforts. Firefighters told Cahill they had been in the building for more than 30 minutes with clear visibility on the second floor before things changed. Suddenly the fire, which had been contained in the attic, took a turn, rapidly filling the room with heavy smoke and steam.
Firefighter and medic Johnny Bowie remembers feeling the vibration alert from his low-air warning device.
“I looked around for my partner, Raven,” he said. “I didn’t see him. I didn’t know where he was.”
Bowie said he figured Record had gotten the low-air warning too, and already left to refill his tank.
Record said he did get the alert, and was trying to get to safety. But he quickly ran into trouble. “As I started walking through the room, I got a third of the way through. And I realized that I couldn’t, couldn’t see. I was essentially going by my memory.” He decided to do a “right-handed search,” where you put your hand on the wall and follow it until you reach a window or other opening.
Fire Capt. David Sprague was working in the building that day, too. He told Cahill the Berkeley First Church fire was a challenge from the get-go.
“From the very beginning of the incident, it seemed like we were behind the eight ball,” he said. “We couldn’t get enough people on scene. It was a building construction that we weren’t used to and we didn’t adapt to that.”
When the smoke pushed down fast from the attic, either due to the wind or a “flash,” where flames ignite and grow suddenly, he recalled thinking, “It’s time to go.” All the fire officers had the same idea as they drew together on the floor and decided to evacuate. Outside, at about the same time, commanders on the ground ordered crews to abandon the building immediately as they noticed the same perilous signs.
Berkeley First Church fire: One man left behind
Sprague himself searched the floor to make sure no one was left behind. But it wasn’t easy.
“It was zero visibility conditions, so I was basically hunched down trying to get below the smoke,” he said. He remembered feeling around in front of himself with his hands, for orientation. “And, just yelling, ‘Hey, is anybody up here? Is anybody up here?'”
Sprague said conditions in the room — the thick smoke and also a desk that had been pushed out of place — caused him to miss the narrow passageway that led to the room where Record was.
When Sprague exited the building, his commander asked if everyone was out. Sprague said yes. It’s a moment he won’t forget.
“Within a minute of me saying that,” he told Cahill, “I hear the ‘mayday’ on Channel 1. And I just remember thinking to myself — [masked profanity] — I can’t believe it. We missed a guy and left a guy up there.”
Dispatcher Dawn Lockhart told Cahill the “mayday” call was immediately significant.
“You hear it out of a speaker somewhere. And you’re like, did I hear what I thought I heard? You don’t hear those all that often,” she said. “You know something is dangerously wrong.”
Deputy Fire Chief Dave Brannigan said it’s only the second time it’s happened in his 15 years at BFD.
In the minutes before Record called for help, as his oxygen tank continued to run down, he said he was determined to stay calm and methodical to get himself out of the building. He knew he was alone, but he worked to keep panic from setting in.
As he continued the right-handed search, he eventually found a window. He looked outside to see if he might be able to get out on his own, but noticed he was more than two stories up due to the slope of the ground. And, directly beneath him, a cement staircase led from ground level to the basement. It was too far to jump without risking major injury.
From his vantage point, he could see firefighters on the ground in the distance, and called out for help. There was no response.
“Because I was so high up, and also because everybody who was on the ground was at ear level with the engines, me yelling to them from inside my mask … didn’t produce anybody hearing me,” he said. He looked up above him, and saw fire in the eaves bearing down, driven by the wind. Having burned for so long, its strength and momentum were obvious.
He then broadcast his location and room conditions over the radio to dispatch. But, based on the response, he said it was clear the urgency of his situation wasn’t getting through fast enough. That’s when he made the “mayday” call. (As it turned out, he had put out his reports on the wrong radio channel, but word still spread through the communications center downtown and the fire crews on the ground.)
Firefighters were able to get a ladder to his position. Fortunately, just weeks before the Berkeley First Church fire, Record and others at BFD had completed a training on how to get outside quickly in exigent circumstances. The technique involves hooking one arm around a rung of the ladder, and propelling the body out the window, swinging down. Record had nearly missed that training due to a conflict, but the trainers stayed late in the day to ensure the entire team got to learn and practice the critical skill.
After getting outside, avoiding injury, Record said he rested and had some water, then asked for his next assignment. Just 2 minutes had passed.
“I looked back to the window I had just left,” he said. “It was engulfed in flames.”
According to the Cahill video, about 6 minutes passed between when smoke first rushed into the room and when Record got outside. In other words, conditions became “unsurvivable” in 7-8 minutes.
Deputy Chief Brannigan said it was very fortunate Record had gotten the emergency bail-out training, which helped him get out the window safely.
“But we need to be thinking forward to how do we avoid that situation in the first place,” he told Cahill. That’s one reason Berkeley Fire took such a close look at the incident and collaborated with Cahill on the video.
Brannigan, who came on scene after initial crews arrived, was ultimately in charge of the floor where the teams were working before the roof collapsed. As it turned out, Record had been assigned as a medic that day, and was therefore not officially part of a fire team. He had been linked to a fire crew verbally, but there were so many people involved, it was hard to track everyone, officials said.
Brannigan recalls that, when he arrived on scene, someone mentioned BFD had a medic upstairs as part of the firefighting effort. But Brannigan said he also noticed immediately, when he got inside, that there was more in flux than there should have been.
“We had too many crews up there, and I didn’t have a good accounting of them,” he told Cahill.
Brannigan said the goal of the video assessment was to collect and share firsthand interviews for others in the fire service, and also to stress the importance of training to keep firefighters as safe as possible — not to evaluate tactics or point fingers at anyone.
Recommendations in BFD’s near-miss report include having a better “span of control” — meaning having fewer individuals to directly supervise by splitting teams up earlier on; having better accountability for assignments when medics are added to firefighting crews; keeping crews together more systematically; and, for firefighters, ensuring they are on the right channel, and push the emergency button on the radio, in the event of a mayday or other emergency.
The Cahill video noted that BFD was able to put out the fire before it caused more damage, contain it to the main building and floor, recognize and rebroadcast the mayday even though it was on the wrong channel, and get aid to Record quickly despite the confusion.
“The Berkeley Fire Department identified a number of factors that contributed to … the near-miss, but also factors that possibly saved a firefighter’s life once he was in a bad situation,” according to a statement about the video and analysis on firefighternation.com. “The forward thinking department partnered with EVALS and Cahill Multimedia in order to share their story with their own agency, as well as the entire Fire Service.”
The Berkeley Fire Department, Cahill Multimedia and EVALS Learning Management System worked together to produce the video of the Channing Way incident. First published in mid-May, it appears below.