March 2011

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Seattle Members Save Family from House Fire

Quick thinking, solid training and courage bested a potential disaster when a line crew of Seattle Local 77 members rescued a family—including six children—from their burning home in the middle of the night.

After a grueling 15-hour shift clearing and repairing power lines for Grays Harbor Public Utility District last Oct. 25, Local 77 foreman Dale Benner's crew was finally driving back to the group's Aberdeen headquarters, taking refuge from a frigid Washington night in fresh cups of coffee and the promise of rest around the corner. The group—including journeyman linemen Steve Tobin and Justin Mills, head groundman Steve Button, line equipment operator Natheon Camus and flaggers Rachel Fredrickson and Toni Fairchild—comprised a four-vehicle caravan with Benner in the lead truck.

Two blocks from the station, a blazing glow came into view. The seven watched as flames shot several feet out the top floor windows of a house on a crowded street, threatening anyone inside as well as surrounding homes.

"The first thing I thought was, ‘We've got to see if there are people inside—because they need help,'" Benner said. He grabbed the radio and told the crew to pull over. The group quickly parked their pickups and bucket truck, called 911 and approached the house.

Benner pounded on the door until a man in his 40s answered. "He was very disoriented—you could tell we'd just woken him up," Benner said. "I told him about the flames upstairs and he then started to notice the smoke."

While raging in one corner of the top floor, the fire only gradually filled the lower floor with smoke. Any damage or danger had yet to become noticeable enough to rouse the three children asleep on couches in the front room, the other three slumbering on the second floor or the parents asleep in their ground floor bedroom.

Once Benner and the members rushed inside, they woke the children in the front room and carried them outside to safety. Benner stood at the bottom of the floor and called out to the other children in the room above, who woke up and barreled down the stairs and out the front door to join their parents.

A few of the children, who ranged in age from pre-kindergarten to high school, were in pajamas, so members of the team gave them sweatshirts to battle the cold air.

"A couple of the really little guys—we were holding them in our arms and they wouldn't let go," Benner said. "Every one of us has kids, so getting them out was priority No. 1."

None of the family members suffered injuries or needed to be treated for smoke inhalation.

"The fire chief told us that if we hadn't gotten the kids from the upstairs out when we did, they would have been trapped up there," Benner said. "We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, he told us."

Benner, chairman of the safety committee for the line side of the utility, has been involved with the governor's safety committee for nearly a decade. He said training from the union and the group's employer made the difference between what could have been a scattershot effort and what resulted in a well-coordinated rescue.

"We have annual updates on CPR, first aid and other procedures," he said. "One of the most important things is to learn how to not become part of the problem in a crisis situation. By going over it, everything comes into play right when you need it—things like doing headcounts to make sure everyone was accounted for and keeping alert but calm."

After the fire department took charge, the crew made its way back to the station.

"All of us smelled like smoke, so we just cleaned up, called dispatch to inform them of what happened, said ‘good job' to one another and went back home," Benner said. "Even though it was midnight and we'd worked all day since 8 a.m., nobody could sleep. It was just too surreal. But we were back at work at 8:15 the next morning."

And that's when the calls started rolling in—from local newspapers, radio programs and a television station. Word of the union members' feat soon began making waves in the area media.

For their efforts, the Grays Harbor PUD gave the seven members a dedication plaque at a recent meeting.

Seattle Local 77 members Rachel Fredrickson, left, Dale Benner, Steve Tobin, Toni Fairchild, Justin Mills and Steve Button rescued a family from a house fire. Not pictured is Natheon Camus.