From the moment he heard the call, firefighter Hale Fitzgerald thought this one could be serious.

A fire had erupted in a home on Kincaid Street in South Portland, and a woman might be trapped upstairs.

“It was one of those calls that when you hear (it), you only know that it sounded like the real deal from the get-go,” said Fitzgerald, 28. “You try to prepare mentally.”

The South Portland Fire Department responded to 4,654 calls last year, including 1,232 for fires. If the past is any indication, this year it is likely to respond to that many or more.

On Wednesday night, a group of five firefighters rushed into a building and returned with a 33-year-old woman, badly burned and unconscious from the smoke, but alive.

The choreography of the rescue played out in minutes, and was assisted by many unnamed others who supported them from all sides, according to three firefighters who were interviewed.

When Fitzgerald and his partner, firefighter Tobey Farrington, raced to the tiny wood-framed building, smoke and flames were already pouring from the structure.

The pair were in an ambulance following a fire engine, but they weren’t the first on the scene. Deputy Chief William Collins was already there, gearing up, and a third truck with more manpower was on its way.

Firefighters had to go upstairs in the house on Kincaid Street to find an unconscious 33-year-old woman, battling smoke and flames to pull her out of the building before getting her to the hospital.

Fitzgerald said he and Collins went in through the front door and Farrington soon joined them. They made their way to the stairway. It seemed barely three feet wide, but soon it would be packed with smoke, flames and geared-up bodies carrying bulky equipment.

When Fitzgerald got to the top of the stairs he found a cramped landing, maybe three feet by five feet wide, that led to a narrow hallway immediately to his left.

Fitzgerald pushed into one bedroom. It was hazy with smoke, but there was no fire.

Collins, who was positioned near the top of the landing with Farrington and another firefighter, Luis Tirado, began communicating with police, who were asking the people who already had escaped the home for information about where the woman might be trapped, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald, who was at the head of the pack, crouched low and pushed his way toward a second bedroom on the right, where the family said they thought the woman might be.

The door was hard to open.

“When I cracked that door open it was pretty intense heat, so (much) that it pushed us to the ground,” Fitzgerald said. “The door wouldn’t open because she way laying against it.”

Fitzgerald pressed harder. More heat and smoke spilled toward him. He could see a mattress and some furniture burning, and the flames ran up the wall. Seeking the path of least resistance, the fire began racing over his head and out the doorway.

“I was muscling my shoulder into the door and then there was a bureau that I pushed out of the way,” Fitzgerald said. He reached inside and found the woman’s leg.

“I had to work her to a position I could get her out of the door,” he said.

Fitzgerald and Farrington finally dragged the woman onto the landing.

Tirado was carrying a canister of pressurized water and air and he shot a blast toward the flames, giving his comrades a moment of relief as they moved the victim farther from the flames.

“He told me he had her and he brought her out legs first, and he told me to grab her legs, so I took her legs and pulled her out and brought her down the stairs,” Tirado said.

He said at that moment he didn’t know what kind of shape she was in, but felt how her body had gone limp in his hands.

“I couldn’t really tell,” said Tirado, an eight-year veteran of the fire service. “I just knew she wasn’t responding to any of us.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Mike Mallory had dragged a hose into the building. Fitzgerald and Farrington, who had helped move the woman down the stairs, switched gears and aimed the water toward the flames and quickly extinguished the fire.

Outside, a third fire truck, Ladder 45, arrived carrying veteran firefighter John Sheetz, who is also a paramedic.

Sheetz, at 54, has spent 32 years in the fire service. He reached Tirado at the stairs, and with Sheetz at the front, the two began dragging the woman toward the door.

“As soon as I got outside I asked for an oxygen bottle and a stretcher to get her to the hospital. I could see she had been burned and her respirations had been decreased,” he said. “She needed help.”

Sheetz began administering first aid. Someone brought a stretcher, and within 4 minutes of his arrival, Sheetz and two other paramedics had packed the woman in the back of the ambulance and were racing toward Maine Medical Center’s emergency department.

In the moment, Sheetz said his years of experience and countless hours of training take over. What does this person need to survive? And how can he provide those things as quickly as possible?

“Fortunately, this … doesn’t happen every day, but it should be very comforting that we can handle it when it does happen,” Sheetz said.

In interviews, each of the firefighters pointed to the work of the others, and acknowledged that their relentless training ensured that no one was confused about what to do.

“Everything just happens, bang-bang-bang, because everyone knows their job and is phenomenal at their job,” Sheetz said. “We really are an exceptional group of people who work really well together, and that’s why we’re able to do the things that we do.”

The woman’s condition was not available Thursday night.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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