Minn. Firefighters Face Close Calls at Gas Odor
Responders encountered a combative resident and a blast that rocked the home.

By Peter Matthews
, Editor-in-Chief


Posted: Fri, 05/14/2010 - 19:54
Updated: Mon, 05/17/2010 - 14:09

Several Minnesota firefighters had a series of close calls at a reported odor of gas in a residential neighborhood this week. Before the incident was mitigated, one firefighter was threatened and several were close to a blast that rocked the home.

Members of South Metro Fire Department Engine 2 and Ladder 2 were dispatched to the incident on the second floor of 217 Richmond St. West in South St. Paul, just before 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

"Most of these apartment buildings in the city have hot water heat and electric appliances, but we do receive a lot of calls for an odor of gas," said Lt. John Voigt. "Sometimes it's difficult to determine which addresses have been converted from single family homes into multifamily, in which case natural gas is a very good possibility in each unit," he said.

Engine 2, commanded by Lt. Voigt, and Ladder 2 arrived to the two-story dwelling to find no evidence of a gas leak. "Our procedure is to investigate with our four-gas meter, but the events that unfolded changed all that," Voigt told Firehouse.com.

They were met by the 9-1-1 caller -- a first floor resident -- in the front yard, who told them of the smell of gas coming from the upstairs. The caller also advised that the second-floor resident was still in the upstairs apartment. The structure used to be a single-family dwelling, but was converted into a tri-plex with apartments in the basement, first and second floors.

As Lt. Voigt finished getting information from the first-floor resident, Firefighter Tom Brooks of Ladder 2 started to open the front door when, "We hear these two booms -- boom, boom, and we wonder, 'What the heck is she doing up there?'" he said. "It's almost like she was kicking the wall."

They backed away from the structure to wait for the South St. Paul police to investigate.

Then they looked up the windows on the second floor in the A/B corner and noticed that the plastic blinds were melting. "Then you could see the smoke and fire lighting up inside the room and then it blew out the window. We thought we smelled gasoline," Voigt said. He called South Metro Engine 1 and Ladder 1 to the scene and requested a second alarm, which is a recall of off-duty personnel.

Thinking that the occupant was still inside, Voigt had Firefighter Brooks and Tim Congdon, also of Ladder 2, stretch a 1 3/4-inch line to the second floor to search for the woman.

They got to the top of the steps and encountered difficulty opening the door. "There was no landing and we were having trouble forcing the door open. We ended up using an axe to chop right through it," Voigt said. They later found out that the occupant had screwed the door shut.

They quickly found the fire and knocked it down. "We did use a little more water than normal, but we weren't really considering the gasoline at that point," Voigt said. The fire was contained to the room of origin.

When Engine 1 arrived, they hooked up a supply line to Engine 2, while Ladder 1 assisted Engine and Ladder 2 with searches of the second floor.

At that same time, Engine 2 pump operator Peter Friend set up a positive pressure fan at the front door and checked the rear of the home for fire conditions.

There he found the second floor occupant, sitting in the smoky second-floor porch. He yelled for her to come down. "She wouldn't come down, so he ran up the stairs to assist her," Voigt said. "She became combative and threatened to injure the firefighter." She had jabbed a syringe at Friend, who retreated to notify the police. Moments later, she was brought out by police in handuffs.

"We were fairly lucky, as I look back," Lt. Voigt recalled of the series of close calls that his crew encountered. "She impeded our ability to get in to her. We may have tried to enter through the rear and found her up there, or something else if we hadn't encountered the fire."

He added, "We don't really encounter many actual gas leaks in the city, and the fact that it was gasoline changes it all around."

"The important thing to me is that we can't let our guard down," Chief John Ehret told Firehouse.com. "There are so many factors when responding to these types of calls and now there is the human factor that we have to worry about."

Asked by Firehouse.com if the crews could have faced an even greater danger if they had made it to the second floor before the fire ignited, Ehret responded, "I'm not sure what would have happened, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been a good outcome for them."