Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

28 August 2008

Trial By Fire

Sometimes in life we’re faced with tough decisions. We can speculate on how we’ll handle them, but nothing is ever certain. I was faced with such a decision yesterday, and my response was not what I expected.

I had flown over to Montgomery, Alabama to drop off a passenger. Heading back to the hunting camp around nine a.m., I spotted smoke rising from a fire. Curious, I banked over to take a look. We pilots always do. This is what I saw.

If you right-click and open the picture in a new window, you can see that there's a mobile home obviously on fire. And just as obviously it wasn’t that bad yet. Smoke is coming from all of the roof vents and some windows, so I knew it wasn't just a little stove fire. It had gone way beyond that.

Although smoke obscures the front yard in the above picture, there is a vehicle parked right by the house. I could also see children’s toys strewn about the place. As I continued to circle, no people were outside the house, and there were no fire engines yet on the scene. Nor could I see any coming up or down that road. Cars drove by, seemingly oblivious to the smoke.

The area is very rural…waaay out in the country, about 18 air miles from Selma, Alabama and about 21 miles from Montgomery. I found out later that it was the tiny town of Hicks Hill, Alabama.

What to do...what to do? The only radio in my aircraft talks to air traffic control. I didn't know where I was (we generally do not carry road maps) and I didn't know what road that was below me or what little town I was near. What could I tell Montgomery Tower? "Hey, there's a fire out here...uhh, somewhere... Could you call...uhh, some...fire department and let them know?"

So here's the first dilemma: Land or don't land? You're not supposed to just plop down anywhere, but on the other hand, it's a helicopter. Landing at places that are not airports is what we do.

I decided to land in that little strip of clear area just to the left of the house. I did a good recon of the area (it wouldn’t be a good time to screw up and hit a wire or something), then set the ship down as quickly as I could. I ran over to the house and began banging on doors and windows. There was no response, and I couldn’t see anyone inside…well, I couldn’t see much of anything inside due to the smoke that filled the entire inside. As I did that, windows were exploding at their tops from all the heat.

On the north side of the house was a small porch and door. The car in the driveway (visible at the very left of the above picture) had me worried that someone was still inside, so I kicked that door in. Wrong move. Venting the fire only caused it to get worse. I could see that the living room (on the left or downwind side of the house in the above picture) was ablaze. The smoke, heat and flames were pretty intense inside, while the fire itself has not yet breached the roof.

Now here’s the second, bigger dilemma: Go in or don't go in? If someone was inside, there could still be hope that they could live if rescued. If there was no one inside, I’d be risking my own life for nothing. It’s not an easy decision to make, believe me.

As I was struggling with it, two cars pulled up in quick succession. In the first were two guys who saw the helicopter land and wondered what was up. I closed the door, and got them to call the fire department. In the second car was the mother of the man who lived there. She was sure that her son’s children were in school, and that he himself had a doctor’s appointment and "shouldn't" be home. But she had not been able to contact anyone to verify that he was there. Needless to say, she was frantic and distraught. It was pretty heartbreaking.

The mother of the owner of the home asked the two guys to pull the white SUV away from the house. They hooked up a chain to it. As they did, we heard a loud WHUMP! and suddenly the fire had broken through the roof. Those mobile homes burn quickly!

After about fifteen agonizing minutes, a lone fire engine arrived, manned by two guys. They quickly unreeled a three-inch hose and began fighting the fire. But by that time the whole house was burning pretty good.

With nothing more that I could do there, and a boss who needed to get picked up and taken on his rounds, I had to leave. I took a few more pictures as I circled overhead on departure. I left, not feeling very good about what had just happened.

Later, I called the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department and learned that the mobile home was unoccupied at the time of the fire. The kids had gotten to school and the man to his doctor’s appointment. Good news! (What the car was doing in the driveway, I do not know.)

So the end result was a relief, but I learned something about myself about which I’m not entirely proud. I suppose that I could have put a wet rag over my face, gotten down on my belly and crawled through the mobile home when I first got there. The inside was burning but not that badly. I could have gotten in – but in retrospect know that I would have been trapped and would have had to go out through a window in the back as the fire consumed the one (north) side of the house first.

I’ve never really had experience with fire before. The heat and smoke (not to mention the flames) are…well, a little scary to be honest. So while we’re all brave, bulletproof and fearless in our minds and dreams, it’s not always true in real life.

And so what would you have done? There's a house on fire, a vehicle outside, and you're not sure if anyone's inside. I keep asking myself how I'd feel if it turned out that there was somebody inside, and they died because I was too...err, umm, cautious to go in.


Hal Johnson said...

Jesus, Bob. I'm not swearing.

But then, you need to be fair to yourself. You could also ponder the grief your family and friends would feel if you'd died after entering an unoccupied dwelling with no one to save. I know I'd have much the same feelings as you've been harboring, but life ain't the movies. You were willing to take action to make a difference, and that sets you apart from a whole bunch of people. Try not to doubt yourself. You should be proud: you could have just kept flying.

I'm glad the folks who live there are okay, and I'm glad you're okay. Just promise us you won't do the same thing if you see a fire at a nuclear power plant, okay?

Bob Barbanes said...

LOL, Hal. I promise. But life sure is filled with plenty of "what if's," you know?

Redlefty said...

None of us know what we would do. None of us. You know that I come at things like this with experience.

I'm convinced that each situation is different and it's often a mystery why we react the way we do.

Why didn't you get on the floor and crawl around? Perhaps because you were afraid, but I doubt it. Perhaps it was because this time there was nobody home.

Good job.

Bob said...

Wow, Bob . . . sure don't know what I would have done but I give you props for landing and checking things out.

You describe this really well, by the way.

Bob Barbanes said...

Thanks, Michael and Bob.

In aviation, we're taught to look for what we call "secondary indications." In other words, if your transmission pressure goes to zero, it could mean something very bad is happening. But it also might just be that the gauge has malfunctioned. You don't react impulsively, but you do immediately start to troubleshoot the problem. One gauge indication by itself is no cause for panic. However, if the transmission oil temperature gauge is also rising, then you have your secondary indications and you should be looking for a place to land RIGHT NOW. This is how we pilots think and process stuff - not just in the cockpit but in our ground-bound lives as well.

So it was with this fire. The car parked outside the house was my first indication that someone was home. Although I got no response to my banging and yelling, I thought it possible that there might still be someone in the house but maybe they were unable to respond and give me the secondary indications I was seeking.

It is possible that the transmission oil pressure is zero because all of the oil has leaked out. In such case, there would be no oil to heat up, and the temperature sensor, which must be immersed in oil to work, might not detect a rise to display on the gauge.

I guess the point is that life does not always give us clear-cut choices and easy decisions.

R1Tamer said...

Hey Bob,

Maybe the bravest thing you could do is appeal to your boss to replace this poor old guys mobile home. I guess he's homeless now and I seem to recall your boss is in the mobile home business?

Anonymous said...

After reading your blogg for several years i would have expected nothing else, might also be the reason you are what and where you are.
Good job.

DAVID said...

Be kind to yourself my friend. You did far more than most folks would have.

Your transmission analogy summed it up- You're trained for that...