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.