Holladay shouldn’t have been working June 25. But the six-year veteran of the Cocoa Fire Department traded a shift with a fellow firefighter and was on duty by 7:30 a.m. Shortly thereafter, he found himself in the training room of the station house. He and crew were reviewing 200 slides of fire behavior.
With each new picture, they discussed scenarios. Would you go inside? Would you attack the fire, or take a defensive stance? Before the day was over, theorizing about a projected image on a screen would be replaced by real-world decisions. Twelve hours into the shift, alarms screamed at all three Cocoa fire stations.
From the second the call rang out, the firefighters knew the stakes were high.Sometimes dispatchers say possible structure fire. Sometimes they refer to smoke. This time the call went: All three stations, structure fire, somebody’s trapped inside.
A little more than a mile from Holladay’s station, Jeffie “Honey” Sanders was lying in a smoke-filled bedroom.
Firefighter Jorge Abreu jumped behind the wheel of Truck 31. As soon as Lt. Ed Mohesky and Holladay were in their seats, Abreu released the brake. They were on the way.
Down King Street, they saw a black billow of smoke. A voice on the radio reported the fire had already torn through half of the home. Holladay rode the whole way with his hand on the door of the barreling truck, ready to launch from the backseat. Truck 31 pulled into the normally quiet neighborhood behind Engine 32.
The fire was the most frightening thing Johnnye Humphrey,who lived across the street, had ever seen. Joe Bradley, who lived next door, had gotten two young boys out of the home. They were clinging to each other and crying for their grandmother. All could hear Sanders’ calls for help. But to go into the house would have been like walking into an oven. The flames were nearly everywhere.Only a bedroom at the front of the house had yet to be consumed by the inferno. Inside was the boys’ grandmother.
The crews knew the house, but Holladay couldn’t remember exactly why. Maybe from earlier medical calls, as Sanders had battled cancer. He recognized the collard greens in a front flowerbed; their stalks shooting up near the front porch. This time, they were wilted by heat.
Holladay cleared his head and checked his gear. He lugged his equipment to what had been the bedroom’s window. The glass was shattered, likely blown out by superheated air inside.They called to the woman.
Holladay and three firefighters stood just outside the window. Holladay told Lt. Kevin Mulligan: “You’re my eyes and ears. Don’t leave this window. If I get disoriented. I want you to be able to yell at me so I can at least hear where my exit is.” Holladay jumped through the window.
He landed just beside the frail woman. She was hardly responsive. Thick smoke meant the firefighter had to use his hands rather than his eyes; he could barely see. Leaning in just 6 inches from the woman’s face,Holladay could tell that her eyes were open. He pulled her toward the window.
Her foot was stuck on something Holladay couldn’t see. He silently questioned how the situation would end. Somehow, Holladay managed to unhook the woman’s foot and threw her toward the window, where Mulligan, Mohesky and firefighter Zach Campbell were waiting. She was light, like throwing a can of soda.
Holladay followed her out. He was hoping for the best, but knew to expect the worst. Then Campbell yelled out: “I’ve got pulses!”
Chills spread through Holladay’s body. He thought: “This could be a save. I thought it might be a recovery.” But no. It was rescue.
Hours later Holladay would return to the station to find his shoes in the same spot he’d left them. Right behind left. The right grabbing the heel of the forward shoe, in a slightly jagged line.
Sanders was rushed to Wuesthoff Medical Center, then flown to Florida Hospital in Orlando for treatment of burns to her back and smoke inhalation. She is now in a Rockledge nursing home and is expected to recover, with therapy. She does not totally understand what happened at the home she inherited from her parents. All Sanders can think about is going home, though she has no home to go to. Her son and daughter-in-law will take in Sanders, Sanders’ boyfriend of 30 years and their niece and nephews, who were living with Sanders. They mourn the loss of family photos, but are thankful everyone got out alive.
Holladay wants to meet Sanders a second time. Not for gratification, but so he can know for sure she made it. Maybe he’ll invite her for lunch at the fire department, and celebrate, just a little. Until then, he hopes residents of Cocoa know one thing about their fire department.
“They don’t have to think about us, ever. We’re sitting here thinking about them all day, 24 hours a day.”
We honor you, Matt Holladay.
(#Repost @USA Today)