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Des Plaines, Illinois: Holiday House Fire

One evening in December, during a family holiday gathering in a townhouse in Des Plaines, a gas can was accidentally knocked over on the stairs leading to the basement. Gas poured from the can onto and through the stairway, and the fumes were ignited by the water heater in the basement, causing a flash fire that ignited the walls, basement contents, and stairs—and which started spreading rapidly.

Four family members were in the basement and two were able to escape the flames, but a 14-month-old boy and his grandmother couldn't escape and were trapped in the basement.

Upon Des Plaines Engine 62's arrival to the complex’s parking lot, firefighters observed a working structure fire; bystanders were hysterically screaming that a baby and possibly others were trapped in the basement.

The fire was in a townhome inaccessible from the street and located a very long distance from the parking area where the engine had to stop. Fire Lieutenant Michael Copeland and Firefighter/Paramedic Robert Prieto grabbed some tools and a water fire extinguisher and hurried on foot to the involved structure while the engineer started stretching hose the considerable distance to the fire.

At the occupancy, Copeland and Prieto observed a large body of fire on the stairs, with heavy smoke throughout.

Recognizing that the considerable delay of stretching the hose the long distance could prove deadly to any victims, they hit the fire with the extinguisher, reducing it minimally, and then continued through the flames, at considerable personal risk, to enter the basement via the fire-compromised stairs.

Once in the basement, the two men conducted a search and soon found the grandmother, who was unconscious and not breathing. They carried her up the stairs and handed her off to other firefighters who, by then, had arrived and who carried her out of the building and started resuscitation efforts.

Copeland and Prieto then returned to the basement and continued the search, finding the child, also unconscious and not breathing, under a pile of clothes where the grandmother had placed him in an attempt to protect him from the smoke and flames.

The men brought the child upstairs and handed him to other firefighters, who brought him outside and resuscitated him. Both victims were revived and, weeks later, were released from the hospital with no long-term effects.

The quick decisions and selfless actions of Copeland and Prieto while under personal risk clearly and directly saved the lives of these two victims.

Chief Alan Wax submitted this Valor Award nomination.

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