Samantha Collin’s story
Santa Rosa Beach, FL Thursday 6:36 PM
Just breathe. Stay focused. I said the mantra over and over to calm myself. This wasn’t my first fire but my heart still beat a thousand beats a minute as I made my way through flames so vivid I thought I was in hell.
I crawled along the hallway gripping the fire hose tightly. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see past my gloves. I led my crew towards the rear of the building where the victim was last seen.
The angry, orange flames danced up the walls and I could feel the intensity of the heat, even through my protective gear. We should be getting really close. I thought back to what little information dispatch had given us about the fire.
When the call came into the station fifteen minutes earlier, I thought it would be a small fire. Quick, get in get out. But this was a doozy. Campbell’s Farmers Market was totally engulfed in flames when we arrived. According to dispatch, the owner’s son was last seen in his office at the warehouse.
I pictured the layout of the market in my head. I had been to Campbell’s many times to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for my family. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be crawling on my hands and knees in the dark trying to find my way around.
Moving through the dense smoke, I lead the crew to the office which was supposed to be straight ahead. My knees ached badly and I desperately wanted to stop and take a break. But I knew every second counted when a person was missing.
At last I found what I thought was the door to the office. I stopped and felt the door before pushing it open. The smoke was not as heavy in here as it was on the main floor. I slowly made my way around the office and motioned to Kevin and Mack, the guys on my crew, to look around the desk. I felt around the floor and found something hard near the back of the door. I called out to Mack and showed him the body. “Command. Occupant located. We are heading out. Conditions are worsening,” I spoke into the radio.
Mack and Kevin carried him out while I followed close behind holding the line. I heard a loud noise and turned around to look. It was hard to see with all of the heavy smoke, but in the distance I saw a sliver of light. What the hell was that?
When we got within a few feet of the front door, I noticed something was out of place. At first, I thought my eyes were deceiving me. Was that a person standing in the distance?
I needed to get closer to get a better look. It was now or never. I checked to see the crew and the victim were safely outside. When I turned back around I noticed the person heading towards the rear of building. I knew it was against protocol, but I made a split second decision to follow. I made my way back through heavy smoke. The air tank suddenly beeped, sending out a signal I was running low.
I could barely make out the figure, but as I got closer I realized whoever it was had firefighter gear on. I quickened my pace, bumping into furniture and equipment trying to reach them. I tripped over something and landed hard on my side. Within a couple of minutes I heard the frantic call through my radio.
“Mayday!” Command called in a desperate tone. “One firefighter unaccounted for. Mayday!”
My last thought was of Bella and Gracie, my sweet little girls, before the roof collapsed into a fiery crash all around me.