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Coventry, Connecticut: Fire and Explosion in a Winter Storm

On October 29, the worst blizzard to hit Connecticut in 50 years began. What followed were seven days without power and over 200 emergency calls for a volunteer fire department that averages 20 calls a week, as well as two lifesaving incidents—one a working structure fire during the snowstorm and the other a house explosion six days later. As the storm descended on Coventry with heavy wet snow and high winds, the gravity of the next seven days was not to be known until power was restored.

The snow came in fast and heavy, breaking branches, blocking roads and downing power lines; in four hours, 30 requests for service came into Coventry Station 8 with Chief Joseph Carilli in charge. Preplanning enabled him to have 35 members standing by when the storm hit; gathering all-terrain vehicles, quads, four-wheel drive vehicles and emergency utility vehicles helped with response on impassible roads.

With eight inches of heavy snow covering the roads and many roads blocked by downed trees and power lines, a call dispatched as a working structure fire sounded at 0139 hours on October 30.

With only three feet of visibility, response was delayed; many radio transmissions reported fire vehicles having to backtrack and look for open roads; at one point, over 50% of Coventry's roads couldn't support traffic.

Before Carilli arrived, a distress call came from Engine Tank 111 on scene: “Working structure fire, one person trapped on the second floor, residents attempted a rescue but were pushed back by the heat, smoke and fire.”

It was then that Carilli’s 36 years of fire service experience and thousands of hours of training were called on. Once he arrived on scene, after donning his gear and walking 300 feet in calf-deep snow, with snow falling and wind gusts over 40 MPH, he arrived at the first engine. Incident Commander Captain Eldridge directed Firefighter Bud Myers, Firefighter Jessica Carilli and Chief Carilli to enter the structure to begin a search.

Upon entering the first floor, sounding the floor as he proceeded to prevent a firefighter casualty, he located the bottom of the stairs. The first floor was filled with heavy black smoke billowing from the second floor; flames were visible from the stairs. The firefighters climbed the stairs to the second floor, where they encountered dense and dark smoke, flames and heat.

The search began at the first room at the top of the stairs. Chief Carilli searched the room with the fire first, backed up in the hallway by Firefighter Carilli, while Myers searched a bedroom.

Chief Carilli continued searching in a second bedroom, with Firefighter Carilli providing support in the hallway, where he found a man on the floor. While dragging the man to the hallway, Carilli asked if the man could hear him; the individual began to moan.

Once they were in the hallway, Firefighters Carilli and Myers assisted with the rescue as they carried the individual to the ambulance crew. Because of the firefighters' rapid response, training and fitness, a life was saved.

Over the next five days, 170 more calls for emergency service came into Coventry Volunteer Fire; power restoration began on November 4. On the evening of November 5, houses shook for a two-mile radius; no one knew then what caused it—most thought it was a transformer explosion. Coventry Volunteer Fire was dispatched to a working structure fire with an explosion and individuals trapped.

When Chief Carilli arrived, he requested a full assignment from mutual-aid towns, five ambulances, three paramedics, a tanker task force, an engine tank task force, the gas company, the electric company, fire marshal and two medical helicopters.

The size-up was done within minutes: one patient with minor injuries, two missing in or around the house, unstable scene with parts of the house spread over a large area, with a major exposure of a 500-gallon propane tank 30 feet from the inferno.

Upon a 360 search of the area, with flames and smoke extending up over 50 feet and two more patients to find, Chief Carilli began to search the wreckage. The first patient had minor injuries and was ambulatory on the A side of the building; Carilli directed bystanders to stay with him until the first apparatus arrived. No patients were found on the D side, but on the C side two patients were located—one lost his life and the other was critical and both were impaled in structural components. The search was complete, and once again, training and diligence saved two more lives under the most devastating conditions.

Firefighters train their entire careers to save a life, hoping never to need to use that training. Under insurmountable conditions—with a blizzard, no power for seven days, 200 emergency calls, a working structure fire and a house explosion—Chief Carilli demonstrated the knowledge, courage and dedication to place the lives of the individuals over his own life.

Chief Executive Officer Lenny Bragdon submitted this Valor Award nomination.

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