Of a Fire in Christiantown

I’m a member of the volunteer firefighting company of Tisbury 651, a ladder truck that also goes by the nickname Tisbury Tower One, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Saturday morning, three days ago, my company was called out to a fire on Christiantown Road in West Tisbury, a town that borders on Tisbury, under a mutual aid arrangement between the towns. The fire was at the home of Danny Prowten, a 63 year old thirty-year veteran of the West Tisbury Volunteer Fire Department. Mr. Prowten, whom I never met, died in the fire.

Many of the firefighters, EMTs and police who responded to the call, and all of those to first arrive, knew Danny Prowten well. Some of them had been his firefighting companions for twenty years or more. As I came to learn, he was reknowned for his courage and selflessness.

Newspaper accounts of the fire appear here and here and here, but they all say pretty much the same thing (and anyway, it’s not at all clear that any of these outlets actually had reporters on the scene — or if they were there, that they were allowed to stay anywhere nearby. I certainly didn’t notice anybody who wasn’t fire/police/EMT or family.)

I spent about seven hours on the call, and about two and a half hours at a “critical incident debriefing” Sunday, so the events of this past weekend are very much in my mind today.

Below, a few bloggish remarks slightly edited from notes I jotted Saturday & Sunday nights–just my way of decompressing.

R.I.P., brother Prowten.

UPDATED I have added and deleted some things since first posting. Please see the first paragraph after the fold.

Apology and clarification

I posted an earlier version of this account on another site early last Sunday morning. In that version I said things that were insensitive and entirely inappropriate, and for that I apologize to the family and friends of Danny Prowten, and to the firefighting and emergency response personnel of Martha’s Vineyard. At the time I thought I was publishing that draft in a way that could only be seen by my few long-time associates on that other site and not by the world at large; in my tired state I mistakenly made the diary public. But that does not excuse my gross insensitivity, and I regret the pain and dismay I have caused.

I have since deleted that diary, but the Internet remembers all and there is a version of it in the Google cache, so I cannot make it go away. I will just have to live with the consequences of this error in judgment.

In the days since the fire it has become clear to me just how deeply loved Danny Prowten was, and how deeply his loss is being felt. I am truly sorry for any further hurt I may have inflicted, by my words, to a grieving community.

I would further like to make clear that I hold my brother Jesse Steere, proprietor of Shirley’s Hardware, in the highest esteem. Jesse has selflessly devoted his time, and his cash, to this community in ways large and small for decades. He owes me nothing. I am proud and happy to have the opportunity to learn from him. I wrote something about Jesse and his store that I intended as a gentle ribbing, the way we guys on the truck rib and razz each other all the time. I meant it as a little bit of levity, but clearly my judgment was off on that too, and I have deleted that paragraph section of my account of the fire.

Saturday morning wake up

Pager went off at about 5:00 Saturday morning. I had it on setting “A”, so I should only hear Tisbury calls. Out of a sound sleep I was confused to hear Dispatch paging out to an address on Christiantown Road on Indian Hill; that’s in West Tisbury (about 6 miles away from my house). I should only hear West Tis calls when I have pager set on “D”, so why was I hearing this with my pager on “A”? Then realized it was a call for mutual aid; Tisbury’s Engine One (621) was being requested by West Tisbury for a “fully involved” house fire. “Jesus!” I said, and promptly went back to sleep. West Tisbury & Tis 621 have their problems, I have mine.

Pager went off maybe twenty minutes later. “All Chilmark Fire Personnel” being requested by West Tisbury, mutual-aid. Holy fuck. For those of you keeping score, we now have West Tisbury’s entire fire department responding, plus one engine from Tisbury, plus Chilmark’s entire department. Sounds like some kind of fire.

(Of course, Chilmark has about 3 people in the entire town, so their fire department is hardly FDNY. But still. . .) Mainly, I’m sure, West Tis wanted Chilmark’s tanker. This is rural firefighting, where there are no hydrants. Tankers fill up at dry hydrants that suck water from ponds and bring h20 to the scene. West Tisbury has two tankers; Chilmark has one. (See this discussion (with photos) of similar conditions last year at the Codding Lane fire, where tanker use is elaborated. More tankers means more water. Again I went back to sleep.

Eventually I got up; walked the dog, made coffee. About 7:00 now. Dear Wife had opted to sleep downstairs last night: insomnia again; she wanted TV for company. I told her, as I brought her a cup of coffee, “Bad housefire in West Tisbury this morning; they paged out an engine from Tisbury and all of Chilmark.” Dear Wife was saying “Glad you didn’t have to go,” when my pager went off. “All Tisbury 651 personnel respond. . .” I said, “Gotta go, baby”. Went upstairs & put on some socks, then poured myself another big cup of coffee & headed out.

(Damn, I had a whole day of writing on Creation Science planned. Really.)

Christiantown

Christiantown, so-named during the early history of the early English settlers on Capawock (also known to Europeans as Martha’s Vineyard) for the gathering place where Thomas Mayhew the Younger (who pissed off a bunch of his contemporaries by learning to speak the Wanpanoag language and ‘going native’ preaching the Gospel of Jesus in a ‘heathen’ tongue– and also saved their (the colonists’) lives by helping to convert many Wapanoags to Christianity, which was a big part of the reason that the Martha’s Vineyard (Capawock) Wampanoags requested and were given permission to sit out (remain neutral during) King Phillip’s War) held worship services. The Christiantown chapel (see above link) is somewhat smaller than your typical SUV, but with loads more historical significance.

Christiantown Road is a single-lane unpaved road crowded by brush on corners.

“Christiantown” itself, in 2010, (if it is anything at all), is about five or eight not-fancy houses, each set on a few acres of property, on a dead-end dirt road in the woods. Don’t let the “town” name or the words “Martha’s Vineyard” fool you, in other words. Christiantown is not a town or a village, and it’s not fancy. It’s a few neighbors living in the woods at the tail end of a long dirt road with history.

The Mysteriously late Sign-on of Tisbury Tower One

To get to Christiantown Road from my house, you have to drive by the entrance to the little road that leads to the Barn at the Tisbury Department of Public Works where 651 (Tower 1) is garaged.

Like many such devices used by emergency response crews everywhere, my pager is half-duplex; it only plays one side of a conversation. That is to say, I can hear what Dispatch says to everybody on the channel I’m listening to, but not what is said to Dispatch. I can only hear half of any given conversational exchange. I listen to my pager to keep track of where this truck is.

So, for example, when my truck leaves the Barn en route to a fire, the driver or co-pilot notifies Dispatch (usually on channel 252) (using language such as, for example, “Six fifty-one, two-five-two, we’re on our way”), and Dispatch responds with (for example), “Two five two, roger, 651, you’re on the air at $time”.) Which is how I (and anybody else listening) know that my truck is en route to the scene.

Saturday morning as I drove past the entrance to the DPW road I was aware that 651 had not yet signed on. That was odd. I considered driving to the Barn to join my truck, as protocol specifies. But I figured that either my truck had signed on and I had missed it or they had rolled without signing on (it can happen), so I just drove on past. It didn’t occur to me that my truck hadn’t rolled yet. The captain & both lieutenants on the truck live much closer to the barn than I do. Besides, I’m not authorized to drive the truck solo and it only seats four people while our truck’s full complement is nine people. So there’s not much point in my going there; I usually just drive to the fire. So I headed for West Tisbury. I was about two miles down the road when I heard 651 sign on, behind me. Odd.

Arriving at Scene

As I was driving up Christiantown road I encountered Tisbury FD Assistant Chief Rodgers driving down. We each drove off to the side a bit per Vineyard custom (which is why the paint on all true islander cars is scratched: roadside brush) & I hailed him to ask for instructions. He told me that parking at the scene was tight with fire apparatuses & ambulances & I should just park someplace near the chapel if I found a place where I could pull off the road & walk up. I found a spot that I hoped was close enough, parked the car, and commenced to walking uphill. After a few minutes I saw the lights from the trucks and the smoke from the fire. I had walked about a quarter of a mile.

The house was situated about a hundred yards off the road to the left, up a hill that was mostly open field with a few trees here and there. There was a West Tisbury engine in the field and another West-Tis engine up closer to the house. What was left of the house, that is.

From a distance, it looked like the house was showing no flames and no black smoke, but giant billows of white “smoke”. (White “smoke” means water on fire, a good sign. Black smoke == smoke == bad). As I got closer I saw that only the first floor walls were standing; the second story was gone, except for the chimney, and the roof was gone everywhere. Most windows were broken or pried open; the few that were intact were black with soot.

Since my truck wasn’t on the scene yet there was nothing useful for me to do. Communications at the scene were on loudspeaker, so I could hear the various units communicating with each other through the cold air. It was about 10 F. Which even for us hearty New Englanders is Pretty Fracking Cold.

I turned towards the little dirt lane that led up to the house, and at the top of the lane I encountered Brin, a firefighter/EMT from West Tis. (In his day job, Brin runs IT for Cronigs. He’s a Wetmachine-type geek & in fact used to run the ISP where Wetmachine was first hosted (before it went under).)

“What’s the story?” I said.

“It’s Danny Prowten’s house,” Brin said. “A West Tisbury firefighter. He’s unaccounted for. Both of his trucks are here.”

“I understand”, I said.

Tisbury Tower One Arrives

So I heard the chatter about 651 coming up the road.

I was wearing windbreaker coat over a sweater, bluejeans & gloves. Underedressed. It was cold. I noticed the power & phone lines above the driveway. If our truck was going to get to the house, it was going to have to go under them. That would be a tight fit.

I talked to a few of the West Tisbury guys I knew. They were clearly tired from a few hours of hard firefighting, and most of them were covered in ice. Not just their coats, pants, boots and helmets, but also their beards and gloves.

651 arrived.

I went down & met her at the road, grabbed my gear bag & got dressed & felt instantly warmer.

Getting the 80-ton truck close to the house was going to take some brush clearing and fancy driving. Branches from overhanging trees reached out to get caught in the ladders & equipment on the truck, scratching the paint. Plus, the telephone and power lines above the driveway were low, lower in fact than the top of the truck. Power had been cut so the electricity line wasn’t live, but we easily could have gotten caught in the wires & maybe pulled down a pole.

So we broke a bunch of large tree branches by brute force & some smaller branches by lesser application of brute force, then put a couple of guys prone on top of the truck to handle the telephone and power lines, which guys on the ground pushed up with pike poles. (Since this is the 4th fire where I have encountered similar problems with brush, I resolved to buy a pair of pruning snips to keep in a pocket of my turnout gear before the day was out.)

Because the driving was so tricky, Troy was behind the wheel. Troy owns a fleet of trucks & excavation machinery. He’s built like Vince Wilfork: not exactly skinny but scary strong. And God knows, Troy can drive a truck. I have with my own two eyes see him do truck-driving shit that I know is impossible.

West Tisbury was still pouring water on, but not with a whole lot of energy. The fire appeared to be mostly out, with small flames coming out of a dozen or so hot spots. Ice was everywhere. Giant leafless oak trees that towered over the house were burned almost to nothing. I figured that flames had to have been about 40 feet high, or maybe 60 feet, to do that.

So we set up 651 and deployed the tower, unfolding the ladder to put the basket on the ground so that more than one person could enter the platform. Now what? Captain Ken was talking with Patrick Murphy and Troy for a long time. Patrick ( a classmate of my son; I used to be his boy scout leader) and Troy would be going up on the platform. They’re skilled at the controls and can position the platform within inches of where they want it.

What was being very delicately handled was the central issue of how to put out the fire so that firefighters could enter the building, but without harming, through overly energetic application of water, etc, the body of a fellow firefighter that we believed was somewhere in the burning, smoldering rubble. Firefighters could not go in the house because we didn’t know if the floor was sound, and the last thing Incident Command (the West Tisbury fire chief) wanted was to have anybody fall into the basement.

We pulled 150 feet of preconnected 1.75 inch handline off the truck in order to get to an 8 foot section of hose that we knew was at the hookup end. The idea was to hook one end of that 8 foot section to an outlet on the platform & put a nozzle on the other end. The platform would be positioned right in the middle of what was left of the house just above the ruins. Patrick & Troy would look for Danny from above, hitting the fire with the handline and sounding the floor with pike poles. So we got that 8 foot section out, and while Troy and Patrick & Jesse were getting it connected to the platform outlet (off the water cannon) & attaching a handheld nozzle, I and some other guys on our crew donut-rolled the six sections of 25-foot 1.75 handline that we had to pull of the truck just to get to that 8 foot section. It gave us something to do.

It would have been nice if I could have gotten some experience on the pumps since I’m supposed to be understudy, but we were not pumping. 651 was being fed by a West Tisbury pumper through a waterway intake on the back end of our truck.

Late sign-on mystery resolved

The reason that my truck was late signing on, I found out, was that Chief (who would not be responding to the scene) wanted to let the company know what was up. There was likely to be a dead person there, he told them, a member of the West Tisbury Fire department. If you didn’t want to deal with it, fine, no prob, excused. If you did go to scene, be aware of circumstance. Be respectful. Family was likely to be there. No joking on the scene. Be cool. Pay attention. Buidling not safe; don’t get killed.

I missed this talk, but that’s how it was summarized for me.

Cold

The Tri-Town ambulance service was there along with the Red Cross/Salvation Army people (pretty much the same people in different roles). Their job is to ensure the safety of the people fighting the fire. In the summer, that means ensuring hydration and preventing heat exhaustion. In weather like Saturday’s, that means preventing hypothermia and hypoglycemia. They had a few thermoses of hot coffee and packets of energy bars set up in the back of a pickup truck.

So up went the ladder with Patrick and Troy in the basket at its tip, with their hand-line and a couple of pike poles.

When the platform had been positioned around with the pike poles reaching down in to the debris (from which a lot of white smoke was still coming off; Troy and Patrick were wearing air masks, of course), but eventually they came back down to the ground without spraying any water on the fire or doing much of anything. I walked over to eavesdrop on the conversation between them and Captain. They unscrewed the nozzle and replaced it with another: In the five minutes it had taken them to get into position, so much ice had formed on the interior of the nozzle that it was unusable, and there was too much smoke for them to do anything else. So they put another nozzle on and went up again and long story short, too much ice again: fail.

So it was decided to go with the water cannon on the platform.

And just as well, too. That thing flowed, I forget what, 1200 gallons per minute or something like that, and yet the smoke kept rising, and still there were (small) pockets of flames. Clearly there was a lot of heat still there. A handline would have been pointless. They poured water on for twenty minutes, I would guess.

My main job during all this time was mostly to stand around.

Other people were walking around, including State Police, West Tisbury Police and a guy in a giant STATE FIRE MARSHALL coat. He had a clip board and a camera, and must have come over on the first boat.

I also rolled hoses, started up a big saw or two that might have been used to cut through debris (it was decided not to use the saws; I shut them off and put them back on the truck).

About 9:00 — 4 hours after the West Tisbury guys had started attacking the fire, and 2 hours after my company had been paged out — the Salvation Army/Red Cross crew came through big time. They evidently had hit up every open food store in a 10 mile radius (of which there are not too many) and come back with giant thermoses of coffee, pastries, gatorade, water, and about 60 hot-off-the-stove bacon-egg-cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil. Despite my largely vegetarian leanings I grabbed & inhaled one of those babies pronto, & also consumed mass quantities of coffee, which had to be done quickly, before it could turn to ice.

Under Captain’s orders, we rotated time out of the 4-person cab on the truck to stay warm. The engine was kept going all this time, of course — you can’t deploy the platform without having the motor running — so the cab was toasty.

A few civilians came up to the house, visibly distraught. They were restrained by some female police & ambulance personnel and taken out of the collapse radius of the building. They seemed to understand why they were being kept out of the fire ground and accept the cruel logic of the situation, thank goodness. That’s not always the case.

Work

Eventually, after enough water had been poured on the place & the floor had been sounded from the platform & provisionally declared safe, it was decided to go in and start looking for Danny.

I somehow came into holdership of a small flat shovel. A bunch of guys from Tisbury and West Tisbury went in and began shoveling stuff towards the door. Just outside the door, another person met said stuff & shoveled it downhill to me, where I further shoveled it downhill and out of the way.

The house was insulated with hay bales.

Hay bales smolder even when very wet, and are heavier than a bitch-bastard.

Out through the door came charred wood, bits of furniture, pots, burnt books, a seeming ton of smoldering hay, random metal, lath, clothing, suitcases, endless ash mixed with freezing water, wire, plastic. There were a few rifles; those were handed out and set aside.

Where I was standing, outside the back door shoveling soaking wet detritus, there was a cedar tree covered in ice. Its branches were really in my way, I had to keep my visor down. I was getting fatigued and my back hurt, and the damn ice-covered branches blocked my vision and prevented me from standing erect. So I took my shovel and began to whack at the branches so-as to knock the ice off of them, and then in fact to knock the low branches off the tree. A sudden chorus went up. It seems that this particular tree had had sentimental value to Danny, and hence to his distraught friends and family. Leave the tree alone!

OK, sorry, I said.

Eventually the pile of crap became too high to keep stacking it close to the building, so I started shoveling it to the other side of the path, only to be informed that I was putting hot coals on the salvaged gun collection, and nobody knew if they were loaded. OK, sorry, I said again. By this time I was standing in mud & ash about six inches deep. Every once in a while flame would break out somewhere and somebody would hit it with a hand line.

I moved heavy, wet, smelly, smoky residue for about two hours. I slipped on the ice and fell on my ass at least twice. My helmet, boots, pants and gear got pretty funky.

Damn, is that shit heavy. Especially the hay. Damn.

As I looked down the hill I saw the giant West Tisbury bush-cutter truck pulling their Engine 2 out of the field where it had gotten stuck. Even though the weather was so damn cold & you would think the ground would be frozen, the truck had sank up to its axles. But they pulled it out readily enough.

The Inevitable

At some point, as I was getting quite beat shoveling out smoldering debris, I heard chattering that indicated Danny might have been found. The State Fire Marshall took over. Yes, the body had been found. Guys stepped back, continuing to move debris out of other parts of the room. Eventually a tarp was called for & the remains were covered as salvage & overhaul continued.

Flag

After Firefighter Prowten’s body had been found and covered with a tarp, our thoughts naturally turned to getting him out of there with proper ceremony after the medical examiner had cleared us to do so.

Of course the man was entitled to an American flag. There were none to be had other than the somewhat weather-worn flag that flies off the back of 651, so Patrick Murphy & I went to retrieve it. It was fastened to the truck with plastic bands, so Patrick cut them with a knife. We handed the flag to another firefighter who took it into the building to give to the West Tisbury crew.

Departing

Then the fire marshall and our assistant chief (who is also a certified fire scene investigator — but when a death is involved they bring in the big guns) went up in the platform with Troy driving to get one more look at the scene from above. Then Incident Command decided that Tower One was no longer needed at the scene.

We packed up our gear, re-stowed our saws and hoses (the donut-rolled hoses were re-joined & put back in proper form as a flat-lay, etc.).

(Sometime around noon I discovered that Troy had a Sprint cell phone, which I borrowed to call my wife & tell her what was up. I had been gone for about five hours by then. Verizon & ATT don’t work in our neck of the woods, especially in West Tisbury. This is old hippie territory, rural, and people *like* that cell phones generally don’t work there.)

Patrick put the tower back into traveling position, all axes and shovels and so on and so forth were put back on the truck. Per Captain’s orders, I began writing up the incident report. Then I was called out of the truck to join with the rest of the company for a brief meeting with the captain and assistant chief. We were told that we had done Tisbury proud, and that we had seen some upsetting stuff, and that a trauma counseling team would be on the island for a debriefing the next day, Sunday, and that we should go to it.

We took 651 down off her jacks and with all gear stowed, prepared to leave. I asked Captain, “So, see you down at the barn, right?” and he said, “Right.”

So I walked the quarter-mile to my car, stopping en-route to pick up my gear-bag, which contained my civilian clothes & shoes & which I had tossed into the woods to be out of the way. Arriving at my car I discovered that only one shoe was in the bag. Cinderella. I retraced my steps and found it.

As I was driving back to Tisbury, I heard dispatch on my pager calling West Tisbury to a report of a chimney fire. Those poor bastards.

Barn & Missed Ceremony

So I drove back to the Barn, got out of my gear & packed the gear into my gear bag (it was dirty and smelly & needed to be washed & hung to dry before being put back in my bag, but the drying rack is down at the main station, so I decided, fuckit, I’ll wash the gear some other time) and commenced to waiting for the rest of truckmates & truck itself.

Took them half an hour or more to get there.

It seems that shortly after I left the fire scene the medical examiner had arrived and done his thing, and it was OK’d to remove the remains from the site. So all the firefighters who were there on scene were formed into an honor line & saluted Lt. Prowten as he was taken to a truck to be transported wherever next.

So in a way I felt bad that I had missed the ceremony but in a way I didn’t feel bad. There will probably be a giant memorial service at the Ag Hall at some point, so I’ll get to pay my respects in some kind of vague approximation of a firefighter’s dress uniform. Although I’m sure the ceremony at his house today must have been quite moving.

Shortly after the truck arrived at the Barn (2PM or so, about 7 hours after we had been paged out), Chief arrived with a few large pizzas and a request that we all attend the Critical Incident debrief. Chief said, “you guys may or may not need it, but a lot of the West Tisbury people knew that man as a member of their department for decades, and they’re bound to feel horrible about losing him in a fire, so you should be there to support them if nothing else. That’s your fellow brother and sister firefighters.” So we all promised we would be there.

We’ll have to double-check everything after all the equipment we had out on the scene Saturday, all the air packs and axes and shovels and saws, etc. But a quick check showed everything shipshape and 651 in service. So we were dismissed.

Sunday

The pager went off on Sunday Morning informing that radio & equipment check had been cancelled for all island fire departments. At 10:00 AM I went, along with the rest of the Tower One crew, to the Critical Incident Debriefing held at the West Tisbury fire station, led by an off-island trauma counseling team. It lasted two and a half hours, and I thought it was interesting and moving and helpful.

What we talked about and how we talked about is confidential, but I’m sure you can imagine a lot of it. It got emotional at times.

There were coffee and doughnuts.

A Conclusion

I wrote this post mainly to process the whole experience. Perhaps I was wrong to write anything about it at all, but I hope that this draft, at least, makes my intentions more clear.

It was an interesting firefighting challenge and our truck and crew were a big part of the recovery of Lt. Prowten. I’m proud of how we performed our job & am happy that my muscles are still sore today, because it lets me know that I did useful work. But it was a horrible scene, and I hope I never go on another call like that again.

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