When Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Capt. Dave Bell and firefighter Jason Kirchner reached apartment 307 at The Sea Cloisters on Hilton Head Island Sunday morning, they knew they had to get inside fast. The apartment was filled with flames and black smoke — and the pair could hear someone yelling.
“We knew we had to get to (the person),” Bell said. “We couldn’t see him, but we could hear him.”
Outside on the apartment’s balcony, a man stood trapped as flames inched their way from inside the apartment toward him. As he stood with his back to the balcony’s railing, he yelled for help as other firefighters set up a 35-foot ladder outside to save him.
Bell and Kirchner made it about 10 feet into the apartment when they had to stop because of “heavy fire,” Bell said.
“I could hear the gentleman screaming,” Bell said.
In a stroke of luck, airflow through the apartment allowed a brief glimpse of a path to the balcony, and Bell and Kirchner hurried through a crowded living room to help the man.
“We have a saying in the fire community, which is that we risk a lot to save a lot,” Bell said.
Outside, fire apparatus operator Joe Zoffoli stood next to the ladder he said was not at “an ideal angle” for the rescue, but one necessary for the situation.
Bell and Kirchner then helped the man over the balcony and onto the ladder. Zoffoli assisted his descent.
“He had taken in heat and smoke but was still very much conscious,” Zoffoli said.
The man’s main concern, Zoffoli said, was his two dogs inside who ultimately perished in the fire, according to Joheida Fister, public information officer for the department.
Lt. Jay Lawson, who spotted the man on the balcony upon arrival, credited the man’s rescue to successful training.
“It’s muscle memory,” Lawson said. “It’s our job, and we do it.”
The rescued man was transported to Hilton Head Airport and flown to another hospital, according to a Fire & Rescue news release. His condition has not yet been announced.
In total, four engine companies, a fire truck company, three medic units, the battalion chief and various other officers responded to the fire that was reported around 7:30 a.m. Other firefighters on the scene included fire apparatus operator Savannah Fuentes, firefighter Marie Mire and senior firefighter Jimmy Floyd.
A day after the flames were extinguished, the apartment was filled with charred debris from fallen ceiling tiles. The floor was covered in muddy soot, and the walls were black from the flames and smoke.
The fire was an accident, the release said. No cause has been announced as it continues to be investigated by a fire marshal.
The fire department recommends residents check to make sure smoke alarms are working, practice evacuation drills and know where the exits are.
The fire will be one Bell remembers.
“We don’t get to pick the days and times when we have a bad call,” Bell said. “When the tones drop, you are going to be expected to perform.”